I don’t remember how I discovered the author, Bill Bryson, but I do remember reading Notes from a Small Island during summer break following my sophomore year of college. Like most college, summer “vacations”, I spent my days working in a factory– this particular one a plastic injection mold factory that made bumpers for (foreign-made) cars. It was particularly grueling, and often I would come home saturated in water from gigantic, steam-powered machines as well as sweat because Michigan was experiencing record-breaking temperatures that year. That summer, I also read eleven books while at work because my machine often broke down. Maintenance wasn’t a priority because the factory was closing its doors at the end of summer anyway; this was the reality of Michigan in 2007-2008. Michigan’s economy was crumbling, but I was too caught up in living vicariously through Bill Bryson’s grand tour of the United Kingdom to notice. Little did I know that around this time, or at least shortly after, Bryson was beginning yet another grand tour around the United Kingdom in preparation for his recent release The Road to Little Dribbling. And, by Jove! It’s damn near perfect.
Released: January 2016 (first published October 2015)
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Synopsis: In 1995 Bill Bryson got into his car and took a weeks-long farewell motoring trip about England before moving his family back to the United States. The book about that trip, Notes from a Small Island, is uproarious and endlessly endearing, one of the most acute and affectionate portrayals of England in all its glorious eccentricity ever written. Two decades later, he set out again to rediscover that country, and the result is The Road to Little Dribbling. Nothing is funnier than Bill Bryson on the road—prepare for the total joy and multiple episodes of unseemly laughter.
Bryson highlights three major milestones in the Road to Little Dribbling
First, Bryson is older.
In Notes from a Small Island, he was in his early 40s, maybe. I mean, that’s how old he would have been when the book was published; I’m not entirely certain when exactly he traveled the UK– he may have been a bit younger– and that shaped his experience. For the Road to Little Dribbling, he would have been in his late fifties/early sixties…and you can tell. He’s slightly more curmudgeonly, in a get-off-my-lawn sort of way, and it’s hilarious! I found myself reading passages out loud to Jon (often about cow stampedes) while giggling uncontrollably. Bryson has grown less patient and his verbal filter has grown more relaxed, which is why he found himself being escorted from a McDonald’s after accidentally ordering 34 bags of food.
Second, Bryson is more British.
Officially that is. In Notes from a Small Island, Bryson is taking one last tour around the United Kingdom before returning stateside to live. His experience, I recall, was kind of bittersweet. He of course had appreciation for the United Kingdom, but he was also a little jaded. Upon starting the Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson is returning to the UK to settle down and he describes his experience in becoming an official British citizen; somehow, his vision of the country is a little rosier. At least for a little while. This is Bill Bryson we’re talking about, after all.
Third, Britain is no longer experiencing its glory days.
Bryson often reminisces about the Britain of the past– the one where the Beatles and James Bond influenced the world. But that Britain hardly exists anymore, especially since it was hit by recession in the mid 2000s. Often, Bryson comments on the economic decline of certain cities with streets littered with trash and closed store-fronts. Living in Michigan during the recession, I’m all too familiar with the effects of a crumbling economy, but it was very insightful to see how it affected another corner of the globe.
This book is equal parts travelogue and commentary on conservation
Bryson’s books are perfect for armchair traveling on the weekends. His descriptions are vivid, and they make me yearn for walkabout in the Cotswolds. But, anyone who has read a Walk in the Woods should know that nature and its conservation is important to Bryson, and it’s no less apparent in the Road to Little Dribbling. Bryson describes Britain as the “worlds largest park” and “most perfect accidental garden”, which I have long suspected myself. Have you seen the Secret Garden? I’m pretty sure that’s what every inch of Britain looks like. Don’t try to convince me otherwise.
But, despite all of the parks and the footpaths and sprawling countryside, humans are encroaching on their surroundings (this is, of course, not unique to the United Kingdom). They litter, they over-fish, and they under-compensate for nuclear disaster. They want to do away with the country’s “green belts”. They want to build airplane runways on land that is considerably far away from the airport– that is home to over 130 species of birds and 300 species of plants and has not changed for over one thousand years. All for the sake of economic “growth”. These passages are not meant to shame civilians and politicians in the UK (at least not all the time), but they do challenge the reader to ponder whether development for the sake of perceived economic progress is a fair trade-off.
He has me convinced that the United Kingdom is the greatest country in the world
And as an American, it feels almost blasphemous to type that. But I can’t help it! Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve romanticized the United Kingdom, or if it’s really as exquisite as Bryson describes (I have a hunch it’s a bit of both). But the people he writes about just seem so polite and hearty and good-natured. The cities, regardless of how “run down” he suggests, always seem like a gleaming gem. And all that history! As Bryson writes at the end of his book upon contemplating all of the medieval churches, standing stones, and archaeological sites:
Britain is infinite. There isn’t anywhere in the world with more to look at in a smaller space– nowhere that had a greater record of interesting and worthwhile productivity over a longer period at a higher level. No wonder my trip didn’t feel complete. I could never see it all.
Can I visit please?
The Road to Little Dribbling was an incredible journey and yet another incredible book by Bill Bryson. But, I kind of expected that. With the exception of the Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, which may have been a little too mean-spirited, Bryson’s novels are just consistently good. If you’re looking for a laugh-out-loud, humorous book and a vividly written travelogue with substance, do yourself a favor and check out the Road to Little Dribbling. IT DESERVES ALL THE STARS!