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On the road again with Bill Bryson

January 19, 2016
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Re-exploring Great Britain in 'The Road to Little Dribbling'

It's time to take yet another walk with everybody's favorite literary pedestrian.

It has been 20 years since Bill Bryson's 'Notes from a Small Island' was published. That book's unique blend of exasperated affection and curmudgeonly wit is beloved on both sides of the Atlantic, both in the author's adopted home and his native land.

His latest is 'The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain' (Doubleday; $28.95), a book in which Bryson's signature sardonic style is once again aimed at the land he has called home for so many years.

Two decades later, Bryson has decided to once again wander Great Britain. His path is a self-designed route that he modestly dubs 'the Bryson Line' basically, a line from Bognor Regis (in the southern part of the country) to Cape Wrath (in the north). Traveling by train and bus and rental car and, yes, by foot, Bryson meanders his way along his chosen route (more or less) to take another look around the country that he has come to hold so dear.

Of course, Bill Bryson is no average tourist. His journey takes him to some familiar locales, to be sure, but he also ventures to a number of out-of-the-way places, spots rarely visited by casual travelers. Whether he's sharing his thoughts on the majesty of Stonehenge or the off-putting ubiquity of litter, Bryson brings his travels to grumpy, grumbling life. His utterly intertwined senses of adventure and humor give birth to tales that manage to be equal parts informative and entertaining.

Through it all, we are subject to the magnificent digressions and tangents that are central to Bryson's oeuvre. One never knows when he will wander off on a tangent about a bizarre night spent at a bed and breakfast or drop a factoid about how many Nobel Prize winners come from Cambridge (it's 90, in case you were wondering). Bryson's cleverness is in full focus as he laments the many things that irritate him and celebrates the (increasingly few) things of which he approves.

Bryson's deep and abiding love for Great Britain is apparent on every page of 'The Road to Little Dribbling.' Even when he complains and he complains A LOT it all springs from a place of honest devotion. Sure, he occasionally gives us the literary equivalent of shaking his fist at those damned whippersnappers to get off his lawn, but that grouchiness is a huge part of his charm particularly when combined with a wit whose sharpness hasn't dulled an iota in the past twenty years. Even at 64, age has yet to mellow Mr. Bryson if anything, he's more acerbic than ever.

And that, friends, is a wonderful thing.

Few authors are capable of the cutting cleverness that Bryson tosses off with seeming ease. Whether he's talking about things he likes (well-maintained piers, independent bookshops, ample footpaths) or things he doesn't (neglected downtowns, apathy toward punctuation, whelks), he is unfailingly sharp in his observations. He veers from ludicrous to trivial to maudlin to sincere, but never to the detriment of the reader; he makes sure to always invite us along for the ride (or walk, as the case may be).

It remains to be seen if 'The Road to Little Dribbling' will achieve the same high degree of esteem lavished upon 'Notes from a Small Island.' In truth, it likely won't, if only because that earlier book is so adored. Ultimately, that doesn't really matter it's enough to know that Bill Bryson is still out there, careening around the various rails and trails of the British Isles.

It's not exactly a walk on the wild side, but who cares? Any walk with Bill Bryson is a walk worth taking.

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 January 2016 12:07

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