A Few Books About England

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I recently mentioned that I will soon be moving to England, York to be exact. My move will take place in about ten days.

For the past few months, as I’ve been preparing my move, I’ve read a number of books about England and the English, some that I’ve uncovered, and others that friends have recommended. I thought I’d post some brief comments about a few of them in case anyone is interested in learning more about the English. (And for my English readers, you might find some of them enlightening.)

Bill Bryson is an American writer who moved to England in his early twenties, and eventually settled in Yorkshire. His Notes from a Small Island is a travelogue that recounts his journeys through England, almost entirely on public transportation. (Amazon US, Amazon UK) At times, I was in tears reading this book, but at other times, it’s a bit forced. Nevertheless, it’s a delightful portrait of the English, though a bit out of date.

BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman’s The English: A Portrait of a People (Amazon US Amazon UK tries to answer the question, “What is it to be English?” It does so quite well, examining a number of habits, customs and unwritten rules that explained a great deal of English concepts to me. (I was aided by a friend, who helped me better understand some of the subtleties the book presented.) It’s an interesting read, but many of the points Paxman makes won’t be obvious to those who haven’t been in England much.

In a similar vein, but in much more detail, is Watching the English, by Kate Fox. (Amazon US Amazon UK) Fox, an anthropologist, set out to discover what the “rules” of Englishness are. Undaunted by the observer’s paradox, she gleefully presents her conclusions, and her experiences, as she held a magnifying glass to her own culture. One of my informants questioned many of Fox’s points, so I’m taking them with a grain of salt. Yet I’ve already seen that a lot of what she says does apply, though the book is getting on in years.

Who better than Christopher Hitchens to examine the “special relationship” between the English and the Americans. In Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship (Amazon US Amazon UK), Hitchens looks at the political ramifications of this long relationship, while also throwing in some more quotidian comments on American Anglophilia and the English attitude toward Americans. Hitchens, himself British, but who lived in the US for more than two decades, until his recent death, was a polymath, so much of the historical minutiae was over my head, but he’s such a fun writer to read that this book is a delight.

I’ve also read a handful of books on British history, but I won’t mention them here. And I have, of course, read all of Henry James, whose writings do help understand “old England.” If anyone has suggestions for other books to help me understand the English, feel free to post in the comments.

9 replies
  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier; Pat Barker’s World War One trilogy, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road.

  2. Dave says:

    It’s a pet peeve of mine when book titles are not italiczed, or at least set off by quotes. I see this more and more on internet forums and even major media blogs. I didn’t expect it from a literate person such as you.

    Now that that is out of the way, thanks for the suggestions. I am taking my family to Englad this summer and will try to look at a few on your list.

  3. Shaun Hutchinson says:

    Hope your packing is going well and things are not too stressful.
    An amusing light hearted book about the north of England is ‘Pies & Prejudice’ by Stuart Maconie.
    I know that Tony Wilson read and enjoyed it, I remember reading somewhere.

    I’m sure you’ll really enjoy York, it’s a lovely part of the world. When you are settled I recommend a trip to Robin Hood’s Bay (not in school holidays – too busy!) on the east coast a couple of hours at most from York. It’s a lovely old fishing village with nice walks and good pubs for lunch.

    Safe travels:)

  4. Chris Purcell says:

    Consider Anthony Powell’s great series of novels, ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’. That will bring you through much of the last century.
    Edward St Aubyn’s first three Patrick Melrose novels (especially ‘Some Hope’) are pretty scary, but offer an antidote to the sentimentalism that many books about England are steeped in.
    And the mighty Beeb is a great way to eavesdrop on the English — there are so many great programs (I mean ‘programmes’) about books, about food, about gardening, about art…

    Best wishes on your move.

    • kirk says:

      I’ve tried reading Powell twice, especially because he’s often compared to Proust, one of my favorites, but didn’t get very far. I don’t know St Aubyn, but will look him up.

  5. William Allbrook says:

    Hi Kirk welcome to England.

    The British Isles is a real hotch potch of peoples and cultures, ancient enmities and good old fashioned in breeding! History for me is where it’s at in terms of trying to understand what goes on here. I suggest two books:

    A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr – http://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Modern-Britain-Andrew-Marr/dp/0330511475/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1368174130&sr=1-6&keywords=Modern+UK+History

    Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 – Tony Judt – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Postwar-History-Europe-Since-1945/dp/009954203X/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1368174219&sr=1-2&keywords=Judt



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