6.26.2012

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

Few things in life are more delightful than discovering and reading a truly good book, and, on the flip side, few things are more depressing than finishing one. I have just experienced both...



My latest read was At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, and I have to say, it was one of the most enjoyable and interesting books I've read in quite some time.

The premise of the book is fairly simple: while wandering through the Victorian parsonage where he and his family reside in England, Bryson struck upon the idea that he really knew very little about the everyday items surrounding him in his own home, and how they came to be there. The result was this completely fascinating book. The author takes us on a tour of his home, room by room, and gives us a history of the world in the process.

For instance, the kitchen provides us with a history of nutrition and the spice trade, the bathroom a history of personal hygiene, the fuse box a history of electricity and the connection it has to - of all things - whale hunting, the dressing room a history of clothing and textiles, etc. It's a trivia lover's dream. From architecture to food preservation, from plagues to lawn mowers, from the Industrial Revolution to a World War II experiment using bats as secret weapons that went terribly, horribly wrong, Bryson demonstrates how the entire history of the world, in one form or another, ends up in our houses.

Along with the array of colorful incidents from history, Bryson also brings a lively style and quick wit to the table. Although the author is American by birth, the wry British sense of humor has certainly rubbed off on him. My favorite line from Chapter 1 describing the rector who originally built his home perfectly captures the dry humor and tone of the book:

" As for where Mr. Marsham fit into all this, there's simply no telling. If it was his goal in life to make as little impression as possible upon history, he achieved it gloriously." 
<snort>

Bryson makes history both accessible, relatable, and thoroughly entertaining. I wish this guy had written my history textbooks in college - they would have been infinitely more interesting.

In spite of my enthusiasm for the book overall, I do feel obliged to throw in a couple of small disclaimers.

Although he sticks with mostly cut-and-dry facts, Bryson is certainly writing from a secular perspective. He clearly believes in the theory of evolution and dismisses the Biblical accounts of Creation and history as old fashioned and unscientific, despite the fact that there is plenty of scientific evidence to support them.

He also, at times, is a bit crude (or I suppose one could argue that history has often been crude). For instance, in the history of the bedroom, he gives some brief but graphic descriptions of the history of people's habits and attitudes regarding sex, women's health and anatomy, etc. Other sections deal with rather gross aspects of history, for instance, the history of sewers (and some of the disasters that led to their modern development), and the history of dealing with death, epidemics, etc. So be forewarned.

Overall, it's a thoroughly entertaining and informative book, and I highly recommend it. I will definitely be adding more of Bryson's books to my reading list...

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So, what's on your nightstand? Are you reading another great book? If so, please let me know in the comments; I'm building a stockpile of books to take to the beach with me next month, and I'd love to have your recommendations! 

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Associate, and if you shop through the link above (click on the book), I supposedly make a small amount of money, although at this point in my career as an Amazon Associate, is merely a dreamy rumor. However, if you do so, I thank you. Consider yourself disclosed. 

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