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Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island (1995) is an endlessly quotable travelogue written by Bill Bryson. The novel follows the American author as he travels around Great Britain one last time before returning to the USA. It is jammed-packed with facts, figures, kooky characters and Bryson's own observations about British life and culture.

Notes from a Small Island: context

Bill Bryson is an American author from Des Moines, a small town in Iowa, USA. Bryson attended Drake University. However, in 1972, he dropped out of college to travel around Europe for a year. While on this trip in 1973, Bryson first arrived in the UK. He decided to stay in the country longer, getting a job in Holloway Sanitorium in Surrey. This choice would be pivotal in Bryson's life, as it is here that he met his wife, Cynthia Billen. The two married in 1975 before returning to America so Bryson could finish college.

Bryson and Billen returned to the UK in 1977. There, Bryson worked as an editor, before becoming a full-time author during the 1990s. The family decided to return to the USA in 1995. This decision directly led to Bryson writing Notes from a Small Island. Bryson used the book to say goodbye to the UK, as he travelled throughout the country, reminiscing on places of note in his life.

Notes from a Small Island: summary

Notes from a Small Island (1995), follows the author, Bill Bryson, as he travels across Great Britain. During this journey, Bryson tries to use public transport as much as possible. However, he has to use a car while in Oxfordshire, as well as on his way to John O'Groats (the top of mainland UK, found in Scotland). While on his trip, Bryson travels through many small towns and villages, on his quest to find the perfect village. One village that Bryson returns to is Virginia Water, where Holloway Sanitorium was located. Bryson reminisces on his first weeks in the UK here. He uses these towns and villages to discuss British cultures, such as their people, food and weather.

Frequently, throughout the account, Bryson provides facts about the history of the UK, naming statistics on the number of historical sites, and listing other archaeological facts. He will then contrast this history with the relative newness of America. At the centre of this novel, Bryson is detailing his experiences as an American in Britain, and lists all the ways the two countries' cultures clash. The novel finishes with an upbeat message from the author, found below,

The way I see it, there are three reasons never to be unhappy. First, you were born. This in itself is a remarkable achievement. Second, you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity, you have the miraculous privilege to exist. and third, you have plenty to eat, you live in a time of peace, and 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree' will never be number one again.

Notes from a Small Island: quotes

Below are a number of important quotes from Notes from a Small Island.

Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but', people apologizing to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.

ln this quote, Bryson is discussing why he loves Great Britain. He uses a list to talk about the different aspects of British culture that he enjoys. This list spans from food to parties to conversations to objects to the weather. This quote captures the sentimental tone seen throughout the novel, which reflects Bryson's love for the country he is leaving.

...it occurred to me, not for the first time, what a remarkably small world Britain is. That is its glory, you see--that it manages at once to be intimate and small scale, and at the same time packed to bursting with incident and interest. I am constantly filled with admiration at this--at the way you can wander through a town like Oxford and in the space of a few hundred yards pass the home of Christopher Wren,... or how you can stand on Snow's Hill at Windsor and see, in a single sweep, Windsor Castle, the playing fields of Eton, the churchyard where Gray wrote his "Elegy," the site where The Merry Wives of Windsor was performed. Can there anywhere on earth be, in such a modest span, a landscape more packed with centuries of busy, productive attainment?”

This quote highlights the differences that Bryson notices as an American living in Great Britain. This passage demonstrates the size of Great Britain to show the disproportionate literature and history that the country has produced. Bryson lists some classic pieces of British literature and remarks on how they were produced geographically close to one another.

To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much as sensual pleasure as possible into one's mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright.

In this quote, Bryson is comparing outlining his perspective on being American. This is an important idea that is seen throughout the novel. In Notes from a Small Island, Bryson uses this perspective to examine life and culture in the UK in comparison to America.

By the time I had finished my coffee and returned to the streets, the rain had temporarily abated, but the streets were full of vast puddles where the drains where unable to cope with the volume of water. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you would think that if one nation ought by now to have mastered the science of drainage, Britain would be it.

This quote highlights the humour that is used in Notes from a Small Island. Bryson uses his humour to highlight aspects of British culture that are strange or questionable to outsiders.

Notes from a Small Island : genre

Notes from a Small Island best fits into two genres, non-fiction and travelogue.

Non-fiction

The non-fiction genre is an extensive category of novels, so it is essential to have a clear definition.

Non-fiction - Literature that is based on fact.

Non-fiction novels centre around true stories that have occurred to real people. The stories in non-fiction books can follow someone else or the person who is writing the stories. Notes from a Small Island follows the author Bill Bryson as he travels across Great Britain. For this reason, the primary purpose of the novel is to inform. Bryson provides the reader with facts and statistics, as well as his own thoughts and feelings on the journey. This means that he frequently addresses the reader personally, as 'you', as if he is having a conversation with them.

If you are going to have a system of hereditary privilege, then surely you have to take what comes your way no matter how ponderous the poor fellow may be or how curious his taste in mistresses.

This creates a conversational tone that is carried throughout the novel. This tone helps Bryson deliver information in a way that is easily accessible and entertaining to the audience.

Travelogue

A travelogue is a well-known form of non-fiction novel.

Travelogues - Literature that recalls the true experiences of a traveller on a journey.

Bill Bryson is perhaps the best-known travelogue writer of the 20th century, and Notes on a Small Island is frequently viewed as his best work. The travelogue is a genre of novel that has existed since Ancient Greece. However, it experienced a surge in popularity in the late 20th century, due in part to Bryson's novels. The primary purpose of the travelogue is to inform the reader about a country. This is achieved in Notes from a Small Island, as Bryson is informing the reader about Great Britain.

It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them. In a country where there is so astonishingly much of everything, it is easy to look on it as a kind of inexhaustible resource.

Another key characteristic of the travelogue is how it often frames the protagonist as an outsider to where they are visiting. This is true for Notes from a Small Island, where Bryson is an American in the UK and is often comparing his life in America to his new life in Yorkshire. Bryson uses the travelogue as a way to discuss how these two countries differ and are similar.

Notes from a Small Island : themes

Two of the main themes that run throughout Notes from a Small Island are nationality and urbanisation versus the countryside.

Nationality

At the core of Notes from a Small Island is a discussion about nationality, and what makes a nation. Bryson's love and affection for Britain can be felt throughout the novel, as he celebrates the country and the people who live there. This can be felt both through his use of ironic humour, as well as moments of sincerity, such as below,

I know this goes without saying, but Stonehenge really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took five hundred men just to pull each sarsen, plus a hundred more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk six hundred people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside and muscle it into an upright position, and then saying, 'Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!' Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I'll tell you that

Throughout the novel, Bryson compares his experiences living in America and Britain. It is his outsider perspective on the UK that allows him to highlight aspects of the culture that many residents may not notice. Notes from a Small Island is a novel that explores the positive aspects of nationality, and what it means to come from a country.

Did You Know? Despite living in the Uk for most of his adult life, Bill Bryson did not gain British citizenship until 2014!

Urbanisation vs the countryside.

Like in many of his travelogues, in Notes from a Small Island, Bryson spends time comparing the countryside to the rapid urbanisation of the late 20th century. Bryson spends much of his time in the novel travelling through small villages in the English countryside. He finds that these villages are fairly formulaic, featuring similar churches, halls, and shops. However, he still talks of these towns fondly, such as Virginia Water, where he met his wife. These villages are contrasted with vast cities such as London, as seen below,

I can never understand why Londoners fail to see that they live in the most wonderful city in the world. It is, if you ask me, far more beautiful and interesting than Paris and more lively than anywhere but New York—and even New York can’t touch it in lots of important ways. It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theaters, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants than any other large city in the world.

Bryson contrasts the two settlements in order to explore how people live in the UK. He uses the theme to show the different types of places that exist within the UK. This shows readers outside of the country places that they would not necessarily come into contact with. It also serves as a vehicle for British readers to think about their own cities and villages in a different way.

Notes from a Small Island: analysis

Notes from a Small Island remains a popular travelogue to this day. In 2003, a BBC Radio 4 poll named the novel as the book that best represented England. The purpose of this novel was to function as a way for Bryson to say goodbye to the country that he had lived in for two decades, while also allowing readers to experience Great Britain in a way that had not before. Bryson mixes humour and witty observations with a sincere tone that helps define this novel as one of the best-known travelogues of the 20th century.

Notes from a Small Island - Key takeaways

  • Notes from a Small Island (1995) was written by Bill Bryson.
  • Two of the main themes that run throughout Notes from a Small Island are nationality and urbanisation versus the countryside.
  • The book is a travelogue and non-ficiton novel.
  • It follows Bryson as he travels around Great Britain.
  • The novel mixes humour with a sincere tone.

Frequently Asked Questions about Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island (1995) is about the author, Bill Bryson. The novel follows him as he travels across Great Britain. 

Notes from a Small Island (1995) is a non-fiction book and a travelogue. 

Bill Bryson wrote Notes from a Small Island (1995) in 1995, before he returned to America. 

There are two purposes of Notes from a Small Island (1995). Firstly Bryson wrote it as a way for himself to say goodbye to the Uk. Secondly, it allows readers from the UK to view their country from an outsider's perspective. 

Notes from a Small Island (1995) is 324 pages long.

Final Notes from a Small Island Quiz

Question

Who wrote Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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Answer

Notes from a Small Island (1995 was written by Bill Bryson.

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Where was Bill Bryson born?

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Answer

America

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When did Bill Bryson gain British citizenship?

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Answer

2014

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Question

True or False: Notes from a Small Island (1995) focuses on the island of Madagascar.

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Answer

False! Notes from a Small Island (1995) focuses on the UK.

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Question

What two genres does Notes from a Small Island (1995) fit into?

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Answer

Non-fiction

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Question

What is a non-fiction book?

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Answer

It is literature that is based on fact.

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Question

What is a travelogue?

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Answer

This is literature that recalls the true experiences of a traveller on a journey. 

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Question

What two themes are seen in Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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Answer

Nationality

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Question

Why did Bill Bryson write  Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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Answer

He wrote it as a way to say goodbye to the UK before he moved back to America.

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In which country did Bill Bryson first meet his wife?

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Answer

The UK

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Question

Where was Bill Bryson's first job in the UK?


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Answer

Bryson's first job was in Holloway Sanitorium in Surrey.

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Question

How many times did Bill Bryson use a car while travelling in Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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Answer

2

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Who is the protagonist of Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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Answer

Bill Bryson

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When was Notes from a Small Island written?

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Answer

It was written in 1995

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Question

How many pages is Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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Answer

It is 324 pages long. 

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