Sunday, June 3, 2012

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

This is one of those "incidental" books. I didn't intend to borrow it, but it caught my eye when I was wandering around the TUFS library. Since this book inspired Neil Humphrey's "Notes from an Even Small Island" (which covers Singapore), I figured that it couldn't hurt to try reading this book.

And wow, I can really see the similarities in the way the two books are written. They're both travelogues of a sort, and they do criticise the respective islands (which, in this case is Britain - not that I would call it an island) but at the core, you feel like the author really does love the place.

Basically, Bill Bryson is about to leave Britain to go back to America and he decides to say farewell by taking a trip around the place. It gives him a chance to compare the Britain he knew and the one that he's saying goodbye to, complain a bit, praise the British transport system and teach you the interesting parts of British history. It manages to be funny and educational at the same times. While it does veer towards condescension at times, it stays on the right side of funny most of the time.

Of course, I checked the published date and it was published in 1995, so you really shouldn't use this as a travel guide in any way. But I find it really cool that it was published while I was living in Britain (my family also has fond memories of the place). So in a way, this is now a history book within a history book. Britain in 1995 and the Britain of the "past" in the book that Bryson compares the Britain he leaves to.

There was only one time where I disagreed with him, and of course, it's over the English language. He says something to the effect that the English language has been enriched by American English. Really? What I remember about American English affecting us (in Singapore) took place when I was 16. For our O levels Chemistry, we were told all of the sudden that due to America, we were to change the spelling of sulphur to "sulfur". I like to think it says a lot of good things about my school that we didn't rejoice at being able to save the effort of writing a letter but instead, started complaining to the teacher that the new spelling made the word look ugly (it does!). Of course, we were only marginally comforted when the teacher agreed with us, but sadly, that ugly spelling is here to stay.

All in all, this is a really funny book that is really different from most "travel" books that I've seen. But naturally, I prefer Neil Humphrey's Notes from an Even Small Island, since I actually know the places talked about in the book there.

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