Author: Bill Bryson
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
Full title: At Home: A Short History of Private Life
I read it: November 2013
The power went out one night in the early summer. We played Carcassonne by candlelight and felt the thin connection to a time before electricity. Laura said (not for the first time) that I should read At Home for an interesting take on the subject. The next day I went straight to the chapter called “The Fuse Box” and read about the advent of home electricity. Who knew we could have lived in life so dim, that we would need escorts when walking outside at night to protect us from child robbers and invisible telephone poles? At Home is about how the world has changed. When did houses get windows? Why do our dining room tables have salt and pepper shakers? For that matter, how long has the dining room even been a thing? How have humans lived with and attempted to stave off rats, mice, disease, and each other?
Bryson’s writing is wonderfully circuitous and boldly expansive, but he uses two linchpins to build the book. One is his own home, a former rectory in the English countryside. He reconstructs the life of its original owner, one Mr. Marsham, a country parson (itself a position that holds its own unique history and influence). Each chapter is a section of this house, and Bryson uses each room as an–ahem–doorway into peering back on the history of humans and how our daily lives got this way. Once a door is opened, Bryson goes where he will, whether back a couple centuries or a few millennia, whether he focuses on a few European individuals or crosses oceans to include other cultures. It’s true the whole book is a bit Anglo-heavy, but it is Bryson’s house that kick-starts the history after all, so he plays fair. And he never shies from mentioning the downsides of globalization and cultures commingling. Much of the book is humans–individuals or groups–being terrible to each other.
The other focus is the year 1851. This was the year of something called The Great Exhibition in London, for which a monumental Crystal Palace was built to house all of the era’s modern wonders and inventions. It was a landmark of novelty, and all of <i>At Home</i> is about just that: novelty. As the lives of humans evolve, the new is what propels them to a place of no return. Bryson argues that the mid-19th Century was especially novel, and that this was the point where the lives of the trendsetters (read: wealthy) were transforming into something resembling modern domesticity. The rest of us (including a newly forming middle class) were soon to follow.
The structure of the book is well and good, but it’s just an excuse for Bryson to indulge himself, and I mean this in the best possible sense. The pace is perfect and the writing warm and humorous. You never know when you might be launching into a 15-page elaboration of a famous architect, but so be it. Some names lost to history Bryson does his best to revive (Canvass White and his hydraulic cement which made modern America, or John Lubbock, archaeologist, entomologist, protector of historical sites, and creator of the bank holiday). The minutiae is extraordinary in its scope and eye-opening capability. You may not think this is the book where you’ll learn about bats, but once the author states that a quarter of all mammal species (1100 in all) are bats, you’ll want to know more. As for that salt and pepper, he claims that nothing else in your house has such a bloody history, and then goes on to illustrate why. The chapter about the attic opens with an expert summary of Charles Darwin’s life and career. Why? Because that’s where Bryson wants it to be placed. It’s unexpected, but the book is made all the richer for it.
History could never be boring in Bryson’s hands. At Home starts in your living room but then takes you everywhere else. A zillion facts are so interesting you swear you’ll remember them, but alas, the quantity is overwhelming. That’s why this book must remain on the shelf, poised for reference and re-reading. And like the book jacket says, there’s material here for a hundred dinner conversations. Just pass the salt and pepper.