Tuesday, April 9, 2013

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson

If you've never read anything that Bill Bryson has written, my first recommendation is to get on that right away. He has a wonderfully subtle, but pointed, brand of humour that makes the whole of his book a joy to read. Just take a look at some of the gems it has to offer:

'For a few torrid and presumably exhausting years, Beckford maintained both relationships, often under the same roof.'
'Worse, he discovered that while he was extricating himself from these legal difficulties, [his wife] had been engaged in energetic frolics with others, including one of his oldest friends, and that the two children of his marriage were not in all likelihood his (or indeed any one man's).'
'No one, other than perhaps the Luftwaffe, has done more to change the look of London than John Nash...'
'Not to put too fine a point on it, people throughout the ancient world were very, very fond of hemp, and grew more of it than they needed for ropes and sails.'

Plus, I just have to give kudos to a guy who can write a book about the history of the home and still manage to talk about brick-making, the Eiffel Tower, and the Penile Pricking Ring (that last one came complete with an illustration).

The book takes its structure from the floorplan of Bryson's house: an old rectory in Norfolk. We move from the hall and the kitchen all the way to the nursery and the attic, not only taking a look at every room or living space in between, but taking intriguing and enlightening glimpses at topics like the Great Exhibition, the spice trade, concrete, Central Park, and Ötzi the Iceman.

Only occasionally do some of these topics catch you by surprise. Even then, though, I always found myself reading through a given narrative with enough interest not to care much if it didn't link up with the rest of the overarching story that Bryson was telling. Of course, each diversion always made its way back to the home. Fitting, as Bryson says in his introduction, 'houses aren't refuges from history. They are where history ends up.'

As a pop history book, this offering really hits the sweet spot. As a historian, I applaud the scholarship that is evident in the text. Like a musician performing a piece of music, Bryson's history shows its inherent difficulties while making them appear effortless: he manages to get to the really interesting details of a story without having to spend an entire book to get to them. But at the same time, he keeps the page uncluttered of footnotes and endnotes, and keeps the tone light and easy to follow.

He mentions how Samuel Pepys recorded once in his diary, 'Going down into my cellar...I put my foot into a great heap of turds...by which I found that Mr Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.' Who knew that the word 'turd' was in common usage back in the 1600s? Not me. Who knew a specific guy was commissioned to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty? Nope, not me either. Ever wondered just how many creepy critters could be living in your rubbish, your attic, or even your pillows? Definitely not me, but Bryson will tell you anyway. Spoiler alert: don't read that chapter in bed...it skeeved me out.

This book's great strength is in being able to link up so many disparate stories and histories into one thematic whole. It almost reads as a series of fun vignettes, each inspired by a different part of your home.

So if you want a book that's easy to pick back up after long breaks away, but still keeps you turning the next page to see what new, random, and highly interesting factoid you'll learn next, At Home by Bill Bryson is the way to go.

via, Bill Bryson

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