At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson
“Why does my suit jacket have extra buttons on the sleeves?”
“Why do we have salt and pepper shakers [instead of, say, cinnamon and cardamom]?”
“Why does my fork have four tines?”
When one of these questions occurs to most people, it gets shrugged off with a “Who knows?” or “Because!” Bill Bryson, on the other hand, launches into research mode and eventually publishes a book about his findings. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life he gives readers a virtual tour of his home, stopping in each room to share whatever has piqued his interest. The kitchen becomes the place to discuss the spice trade and nutrition. In the bedroom he gives us sex and death and society. The cellar is an excuse to discuss building materials and the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution. In short, Bryson wanders from one topic to the next, entertaining the reader with the hows and whys of the way we live.
I recently read a book called The Age of Comfort – you may remember the review – that credits the French with the invention of the modern home. I was worried that Bryson’s At Home would cover similar territory, and that perhaps I shouldn’t read the two books practically back-to-back. But Bryson’s book is decidedly Anglocentric since he’s writing about the history of his English home. He’s focused on the innovations that took place during the Industrial Revolution, and the social changes these new inventions and ideas brought to England and America. The Age of Comfort and At Home ended up complimenting each other quite nicely, rounding out the gaps in each authors’ account of the history of private life.
As an author, Bill Bryson seems to be somewhat polarizing amongst my friends. Some of them love his rambling curiosity, which gives his books a spontaneity that livens up dry topics. Others hate his lack of focus and the disorganized way his thoughts run together. I seem to fall somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed At Home and liked some of the strange detours he took; his chapter about the study focused mainly on the pests and vermin found in houses. There are a lot of historical figures to keep track of, British aristocrats and architects that appear erratically throughout, and at times it was hard to keep track of them. I tried!
If you’re a Bryson fan, you won’t want to miss his latest book. If you’re the sort of person who collects trivia and random facts, this should be a fun read for you, too.
4 out of 5 stars