Saturday, March 26, 2011

Review: At Home, by Bill Bryson

I should begin by saying that I adore Bill Bryson's books, all of which I have read, and most of which I have read several times. I love the gentle humor he sees in nearly everything (A Walk in the Woods, chronicling a hike along the Appalachian Trail with a Little-Debbie-snack-cake-eating friend), the way he demystifies even  the most complex subject (A Short History of Nearly Everything, covering the history of scientific achievement from the Big Bang through evolution and beyond), and his appreciation for the little quirks and eccentricities that permeate every aspect of our lives (Mother Tongue, on the origins of the English language). Trivia abounds everywhere in many of his books, and with each successive reading, I discover new things that I had not noticed at first glance, or I make new connections between those facts.

In short, Bill Bryson writes those wonderful books that you want to own, not borrow, and keep on your shelf and refer to every now and then, maybe even loan to a trusted friend - although be careful if you do; I've lost a few this way.

So I was ecstatic when I learned he had a new book coming out, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which was released last fall and I ordered and read immediately - and I think you get some sense of what my own private life has been like that I am only just now getting to the review.

At Home is classic Bryson writing. His subject is home life, using as his framework the old English rectory that is his own home. He goes from room to room, starting with the hall and ending in the attic. Along the way he chronicles both the history of his specific house, built in 1851, the same year as London's famous architectural marvel, the Crystal Palace, as well as houses in general and the changing lifestyles of their occupants.

It sounds kind of dull, but in Bryson's hands, it isn't - for the examples he uses to make his points are often so quirky and unexpected, and the supporting historical evidence her cites are ... well, our own era doesn't seem so strange when you read them. Examples from various chapters include:

Gardens: For a time it was fashionable to build a hermitage and install in it a live-in hermit. One such hermit was fired after three weeks when he was spotted at the local pub.

Dining rooms: Came into fashion around the mid-18th century, due largely to a desire to preserve expensive upholstered furniture from guests, who wiped their fingers on it - and as late as the mid-19th century, it was considered acceptable for guests to "wipe their lips on a tablecloth, but not blow their noses with it."

Bathrooms: Originating with the ancient Romans and Greeks, baths fell out of use during the Middle Ages when it was decided that bathing invited illness; thus allowing devastating illnesses to arise on a vast scale.

Having devoted two previous books to the origins of the English language, Bryson's continued interest in the topic informs some of the writing. In the chapter on bathrooms, there is discussion of many of the diseases that spread during the Middle Ages, such as ergotism, which spread during the 1550's and caused the sufferer's cough to sound like a dog bark, and may be the origin of the expression "barking mad."
The sections on food were, not surprisingly, among my favorites. A lengthy section on spices starts by discrediting "the idea that spices were used to mask rotting food doesn't hold up to scrutiny. The only people who could afford spices were the ones least likely to have bad meat." At one time in history, sugar was so prized that those who couldn't afford sugar blackened their teeth to create the illusion that they could. The most unnerving section involved another occupant of the modern home, the rat, and I learned that, among other things, they really do enter houses through toilets*.

I had my beefs with At Home: A Short History of Private Life** - one of which was the fact that, having so thoroughly read his other books, I found myself running up against things I had read before, and wishing he had covered something new instead. But this was mostly an infrequent occurrence, and by and large, At Home joins his other work on my favorites shelf.

*Note to my husband: You will put down the toilet seat.
**Be honest - you knew I would.


  1. I've been a huge Bryson fan for over 20 years, have read nearly all his books (missing one, I think), and I have to say that I haven't liked his recent stuff (Thunderbolt and At Home) as much as I loved most of the others... But I'll be first in line to read whatever he writes next.

  2. I'm embarrassed to say that I've never read anything by Bill Bryson. I've seen mixed reviews of this one but yours has convinced me to give it (and him) a try.

  3. I've had this one buried in my TBR pile for months. It's moving to the top!


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