My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Bill Bryson is probably the luckiest writer alive, for a few reasons.
For one thing, my wife adores him. This should give me abundant hope, as it implies that as I get older and grouchier, so as long as I remain bumbling, mildly humorous, and appropriately annoyed at the grammatical foibles of young people, she will continue to find me endearing. (She might even start reading my books.)
But he’s also lucky because the man has made a successful career of traveling about investigating interesting places and writing about what he finds. He gained all the credibility he’ll probably ever need doing this and doing this very well in his excellent articles for National Geographic. But now that he has this credibility, he can do whatever he wants with it. He can go where he pleases and season his accounts with whatever historical anecdotes strike his fancy and as much griping about litter, economic depression, or kids these days he feels inclined to include. At this point, he could conceivably return to the United States with the intention of writing a book on highway rest areas, and it would be an immediate success.
I hope it’s clear here how much I envy this guy.
Yet I also at times—and especially in this, his most recent work—find him quite frustrating. His bits of history on the places he visits, for instance, are presented without any real context. Of course, in this book he’s under no obligation as a historian or sociologist (which, to be fair, he never pretends to be) to build these observations into any thesis or use them as arguments toward anything beyond comments like “England is absurd and delightful” or “Things are getting pretty crummy here.” The Road to Little Dribbling is just Bryson ambling about Britain, sort of traveling from the far south to the far north, and also sort of retracing some of his steps from his great work, Notes from a Small Island. Really though, it’s just him being his familiar, garrulous, and somehow endearing self.
Now, Bryson has done fine work—let’s get that straight. I’m rereading his science book right now, and it’s solid. More than that, it’s written with what makes him so appealing: eyes wide with genuine wonder and delight. “This is your universe,” he says. “Pay attention.” I remember Notes from a Small Island being similar: exploring the wonder of a new and genuinely wonderful place. But a lot of that seems to be lacking in Little Dribbling. This is an older, more tired, grouchier Bryson taking us on an aimless tour with sidetracks to wait for a new baby’s arrival or attend a soccer match with the grandkids. Maybe that should make it more endearing, but instead it gives the sense that this whole thing is an afterthought, an excuse to write a book in which he can comment on whether shops have opened or closed since the last time he was in town, whether the village he’s passing through has a good high street, and how rude the clerk in the hardware store is.
In places it’s quite maddening, both for Bryson, clearly, and for the reader. It’s maddening for the reader because Bryson could do so much more. In some places, for instance his visit to Avebury, he gives wonderful and astonishing context on the standing stones. Yet in other places his comments are simply throw-away lines about certain museums being nice, pleasant, or interesting without any details. In one instance he explains the remarkable situation of the manor of a dwindling family being finally donated to the National Trust and turned into a museum and tells how some rooms hadn’t been opened for decades, but we get very little insight into what this place actually was like. (It was musty, according to Bryson.) Or where he points out the oldest public park in the world and explains that it’s a model for pretty much all other city parks, but then does nothing to actually take us there in his prose.
Maybe that’s my primary complaint. I’m used to Bryson taking me places. Here I just felt like I was getting an account of Bryson going different places and how they affected his emotional state. There’s some irony here too. Bryson apparently has become something of a patron saint for landscape conservation, walking paths, and eliminating litter in Britain. And yet in this book we spend a good deal of our time with him in the car, zipping from one sight to another, along the way getting updates about the things that annoy him about politics or culture or long expositions on the downfall of proof-reading followed by imaginary dialogue of what he’d like to tell people who are unpleasant to him.
A final complaint: we know he’s well-read, but it taxes even the most charitable reader’s patience when Bryson approaches a place like Blackpool and offers a solution to its economic and social woes in less than a page. I don’t begrudge him offering a solution, but it would be wonderful to have had some suggestions on where to dig deeper for information on Blackpool or any other interesting place Bryson finds himself. Bryson knows a thing or two about every place he visits. Where does he learn all this? He’s been my guide for the book, I’d like some guidance on where to go next to learn more. I’m not asking for footnotes or endnotes (okay, maybe I am), but at least a list of suggested reading would have been helpful.
Yes, my annoyance is probably primarily motivated by jealousy: I want to be there seeing those things and writing (or complaining) about them. In fairness, I’d likely be just as grouchy (hopefully to my wife’s delight). But I’d certainly have less credibility and undoubtably do a much poorer job than Bryson has done here.