Goodreads: At Home: A Short History of Private Life
“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”
Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has figured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.
Bill Bryson possesses the talent of writing engagingly on any subject. In At Home, he explores the history of a plethora of aspects of everyday life, many of which we take for granted or consider too mundane for our interest. His voice shines through his work, humorous, wry, and utterly fascinated by turns. Bryson clearly wrote At Home as a work of personal interest, inspired by an English parsonage he bought and his own interest in just about any fun fact, but he invites readers to share his enthusiasm and wonderful through a conversational style that treats them friends and colleagues on his journey of discovery.
Bryson organizes At Home by exploring a house room by room, stopping to consider points of curiosity along the way. In the bedroom, he might discuss the history of mattresses and the place of sex in society, while in the bathroom he expounds on the development of modern plumbing. The subjects Bryson chooses occasionally seem arbitrary. For instance, in the chapter on the study, he talks about mice and the other creatures (like bats or dust mites) that may inhabit one’s home—simply because there happen to be mice living in his study. Nonetheless, a reader will hardly complain a subject is random if it is fascinating all the same—and Bryson ensures that it is.
The organization is also sometimes muddled within a chapter, as Bryson jumps from one century to another and then back again, instead of attempting to write his history strictly chronologically, but the point does not detract very much from the enjoyment of the book. The entire work is a conglomeration of facts Bryson thinks are cool, so the order the facts appear in is not of the utmost importance. The claim that Bryson will explore the history of private life by talking about the things in one room at a time helps to give some structure to At Home, but a book of this scope—spanning dozens of topics over hundreds of years—is inevitably going to become scattered.
In additional to historical and technical details, Bryson is intensely interested in the people of history. At Home includes a number of mini biographies, as Bryson introduces each inventor or other historical player at length—either sympathetically, admiringly, or playfully mockingly as he deems fit. (Some people have undoubtedly done strange things with their time and wealth in the past, and Bryson has no problem pointing that out. In the end, however, one can tell he really just thinks these people are fun to discuss.) His treatment of the movers and the shakers of the past as actual people, rather than tools on the path of progress or historical footnotes, truly sets his work apart and helps bring his book to life.
At Home is a marvelously informative and entertaining book. Well-written, carefully researched, and full of fun stories, it is the perfect pick for anyone looking for engaging nonfiction or simply a good, interesting book.