Friday, August 26, 2011



A grumpy but lovable travel writer takes A Great American Road Trip through the small towns, tourist traps and wide open spaces of the USA.


I bought this book at the start of my own Great American Road Trip, which has been extensively documented on this blog. I read about half of it along the road, and visited many of the places Bryson describes just days before reading about them in the book. This was a great way to read, and I found myself comparing my own impressions with his, even though he took his trip the year before I was born, and plenty of things have changed. A book that is simply a series of descriptions of mile after mile of travel could be boring, but fortunately America is so big and varied that there is always something new to read about or see.

Bryson's characteristic witty and slightly grumpy writing style is the other thing that keeps the narrative interesting. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I think he's hilarious. He uses his unique voice to talk about the things that are good about the US, and he also pulls no punches when describing things that have changed for the worse. He strongly objects to the spread of cooker-cutter commercialism, and he mourns the loss of unique shops and restaurants in favor of chains and shopping malls. Bryson does tend to be quite judgmental, and some of his rants about tourists, overweight people and the uneducated were taken too far. Although many of his observations seemed to be accurate, the mean comments were occasionally too much. It can be a bit too easy to make fun of Americans sometimes, but this book is successful because it does contain a lot of truth too (Disclaimer: I'm an American and so is Bill Bryson).

The book is divided into two sections, East and West, for the two big trips that Bryson took, covering 13,978 miles. He visited Springfield, Snowflake, Gettysburg, New York City, Newport, Leadville, Gallup, Carson City, Buffalo, Murdo and more. He ate in diners and visited the birthplaces of famous people. He saw universities, national parks, and cities. He was bored, tired and filled with wonder as he traveled through the country, just like thousands of other road-trippers before and since. This is a good book if you like travel narratives, and it's a great book, if you like exploring that beautiful country called the USA.


Bill Bryson's website
My review of Bryson's NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND


I bought a paperback copy in a small town bookstore for $14.99


Do you prefer to read books about your own country and culture or about far-off lands? Have you ever read a book about your own country where you think the author got it wrong?


  1. How a propos you posted this. When I was living in HK, my British friends told me about this book. I was just thinking back to those days and their impressions of the US! I prefer reading books that take place in far away lands. I breathe the US every day, so it's a nice change to go elsewhere through books. OOOH! I just read a book for my book group that takes place in the US. The author wrote about a Chicago suburb in the late 60s and got it so wrong. It wasn't a suburb back then (too far away and nowhere near as large as it is today). So I told my book group no one would have commuted to Chicago from this town 42 years ago. They thought I was a stickler for being so detail oriented!

  2. I listened to this on audio before taking my own road trip across the US (I'm a Brit) and it was great listening to him reading it himself. A lot of the barbs against uneducated and obese Americans come across as light-hearted when you hear him read them himself.

  3. I read this book some years ago on a US road trip and I loved it! But like you I like anything Bryson writes. I thought notes from a small island was funny and wasn't offended by his portrayal of Britain.I liked Sam's idea of listening to the author on audio; I'd have loved that during my US road trip. I once read a Scottish guide book published in the US which was so wrong about many basic facts! I like to read practical guides before I visit, memoirs or fiction set in the place whilst I'm there and photographic travel books when I return, to remind me of the place.

  4. Thank you all so much for your comments. I'm glad so many people have read this account of the US because I really do think it captures my country nicely. I've always liked reading books about far-off lands, but now that I live in a far-off land I find that I want to read everything about it that I can find. I do enjoy reading books about home sometimes, though there do not seem to be that many portrayals of Phoenix, Arizona out there.

    Susan, I think you are right about the importance of attention to detail, and an author is doing her readers a disservice if she doesn't get the very flavor of a location right.

    Sam, I hope you had an absolutely lovely time in the US.

    Joyce, I think your travel reading plan is brilliant.

  5. Good luck!! I think this is one of the best books, you are inspired by one of the best authors and book in the history !


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