Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life - Bill Bryson

Most rating systems go from one to five stars, but even given those parameters, I feel compelled to give Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, six hearty, shooting stars! How's that for containing my enthusiasm?  Bryson accomplishes so much here that is rare and invaluable.  Both as a teacher hoping to instill a true LOVE of history in my students and just as a person with basic human curiosity, I’m so very grateful for this gem of a book.

After completing the ambitious, but equally enthralling A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which he assumed the daunting task of explaining scientific knowledge about the universe, Bryson decided to turn his attention toward the history of more ordinary things.  He describes his inspiration this way: “Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me.”

Living as he does in a home that was originally an English parsonage built in 1851, Bryson decided to take that year as his starting point. Conveniently, 1851 happens to coincide with London’s “Great Exhibition,” where people from nations all over the world gathered to display their newest inventions... many of which contributed greatly to the “comforts” enjoyed in most modern, western homes. 1851 though, is by no means a line drawn in the sand. Bryson frequently skips further back into history to explain the older origins of his various subjects. In fact, he begins his history of the HOME by exploring the question of “why people live in homes at all.” The answers allow him to take his readers on an intriguing archeological jaunt through ancient history.
Part of Bryson’s genius here is that he does not adopt the time worn structure of organizing his history chronologically. This book most definitely is not reminiscent of your old doorstop tome from the Western Civ., general ed. class you were required to take in college. Instead, with humor and his own keen interest, which is palpably alive to the reader, Bryson takes us on a tour of his house. As we proceed from room to room, he fills us in on the background traditions, historical innovations and quirky oddities pertaining to each.
For example, in the “Hall,” he traces the downward linguistic spiral of a word once used to donate the main gathering room in a castle, to the place where we “wipe feet and hang hats.” In doing so, he not only details the communal nature of ancient and medieval living situations, but also clarifies that the “board” in “room & board” literally originates from the board that served for most dining surfaces.
Upon entering “The Kitchen,” Bryson treats his hungry readers to a delicious, multi-course meal covering the history of food, its preparation and preservation. The information is fascinating, athough metaphors aside, you may wish to read this chapter on an empty stomach, as it details the many and sundry additives deceptive food sellers once used to bulk up their products. Eighteenth century tea, for example, might have included “anything from sawdust to powdered sheep’s dung.”
In his chapter on “The Fuse Box,” he provides a history of lighting, detailing our evolution from smoky, candle-lit rooms to gas lighting and electric fixtures, defusing (so to speak) the mistaken notion that our ancestors in “the pre-electric world went to bed at nightfall.” His chapter on the “Drawing Room,” provides a thorough history, and thankfully clarifies the origin for the title of this room, which has nothing in the slightest to do with artistic endeavors. In fact, he explains, “the term is a shortening of the much older Withdrawing Room, meaning a space where the family could withdraw from the rest of the household for greater privacy."
Bryson’s book is filled with fascinating nuggets like this, but it would be misleading to give anyone the impression that this is merely a book of interesting trivia. No indeed! This is a sweeping and absorbing historical account of why we live as we do and it will keep you up reading much later into the night than you’d planned. It’s that much of a page turner.
I fully plan to pass At Home along to my teen daughters as a far more palatable and exciting entrĂ© into history and I fervently hope Bryson will continue writing such fascinating books. Much as I love his travel odysseys (and I definitely do), I think it is in writing books like this one where he makes his most invaluable contributions.

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