Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

“I would absolutely love to do a book on Canada,” Bryson declares boldly. There’s a pause as I struggle but fail to say something enthusiastic. “I find Canada fascinating, particularly its relationship to the US. But publishers beg you not to do a book on Canada. Nobody wants to read a book on Canada. Even Canadians don’t want to read a book on Canada! My wife would very much prefer it if I did a book where I stayed at home, which makes a book on Canada doubly difficult." (reference)
If I get the chance to visit the UK again, a place I've been only once, for three weeks in 1986, I'll be re-reading Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island ahead of time, alternately chortling and furrowing my brow thoughtfully. The man sells books like crazy, so there's no need for puffery here, but they're well worth reading.

There are times when you just can't go wrong with jokes about flatulence, and I guffawed about a couple of those in this book, and about Bryson's observation of British manners and tastes. Though sometimes a bit unnecessary, his imagined petty vengeances are also excellent. I mean, who wouldn't spend time dreaming up assorted ways of getting back at a B&B host who boots you out for breaking a house rule on the improper flushing of a decrepit toilet, for example?

Serious stuff, too, though: Bryson has some very strong opinions about architecture (heritage versus the 50s to 80s), about the maintenance of community, and about the importance of life as a pedestrian. He's not unaffiliated with Prince Charles' famous objections about Britain's assault on its own history by means of urban plan, but Bryson's accent is a bit further from upper-class twit, the range of his tone lets him be more persuasive, and honestly, it's not a fair fight when you can write like this.

If the great stack of Bryson books at the recent Times-Colonist charity book sale is a reliable indicator (and it is, Carol Shields, as you also know, Alice Munro), Bryson's books get given at Christmas to an awful lot of non-readers. Save the trouble, and give them to friends or family likely to actually read them: maybe give them at surprise dates (June 19, for example - no, wait, apparently that's Juneteenth in 36 American states - June 27, then), to free up Christmas for those nasty polyester sweaters your great-aunt is so fond of giving away.


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