Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors. This is not one of my favorite books. It’s definitely not one of my favorite Bill Bryson books.
I suppose that is because I am more a fan of Bryson the quirky history writer or witty autobiographer than of Bryson the clever travel writer. Had I read Notes From A Small Island first, I likely would never have picked up another of his books. Thankfully, my virginal Bryson experience came with A Short History of Nearly Everything, followed by Shakespeare, A Walk in the Woods, At Home and One Summer, delightful, insightful and engaging experiences all. Not so here.
I will say that the introduction and early chapters of The Road to Little Dribbling had me laughing out loud in anticipation of mirthful reading ahead. But, alas, it was not to be. Rather than the witty and incisive portrait of the British countryside I was primed for, this deteriorated into a bland and pedestrian recounting of the quaint streetscapes and gastronomic highlights of one cute little British village after another. Soon, they seemed all to blend into one another like some rather cleverly written article you might find on an end table in your hotel room, published by the local Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.
The subtitle promises “Adventures of an American in Britain,” but it quickly becomes clear that Bryson had very few adventures during his long and somewhat hasty slash across the face of the British Isle. And, there is very little in his descriptions or his narratives to suggest a peculiarly American take on the experiences and scenes he reports.
While I suspect I personally agree with many of Bryson’s opinions on some of political and social defects of our time, I found his tendency to pepper his reporting in this book with terse social commentary to be sorely off-putting. Instead of being witty, engaging or inspirational, these utterances tended to come off more as curmudgeonly and shallow rants than the insightful reflections of a writer of Bryson’s caliber.
At times along the narrative, Bryson seems so uninspired that he says things like, “I really wanted to stop in and see this particular attraction, but it was closed when I drove through town, so let’s talk about the boring stuff I did see.” You’re writing a book about the quaint details of your favorite country and you don’t have an extra hour or day to pop into those that interested you most? I will confess that there are times when writing my own newspaper column that I just don’t have it. I would never say I “mail it in,” but I feel rushed or out of sorts, and for whatever reason, I just don’t seem to be able to scratch more than a couple millimeters beneath the surface of an idea or to summon the kind of creative energy needed to really engage or satisfy readers. That was the sense I had about Bryson and this book.
Because Bryson’s Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling was certainly worth reading. But I never got the feeling that, despite his abundant expressions of love and affection for his adopted new homeland, he was seriously emotionally invested in telling the stories he had to tell nor that he really had that many to tell in the first place.