Saturday, January 21, 2012

At Home

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
© 2011 Bill Bryson
512 pages

How much history and how many laughs can you put under one roof? Take a tour of Bill Bryson's old English home with him and find out.  At the outset of the book, Bryson shares a few experiences in and around his home which impressed upon him the fact that there's a great deal of fascinating history bound up in the mundane environment we take most for granted; our houses. And so, he labors to tell the stories of his house -- of all of houses, and of civilization in general.

A guided visit through his house, room, by room, frames a collection of essays covering the entire range of human activity and history. Some topics are directly connected to the room in question. For instance, when writing on the kitchen Bryson treats the reader to a history of salt and spice -- after assuring us that nothing we touch today will have "more bloodshed, suffering, and woe [...] than the innocuous twin pillars of your salt and pepper shaker."  Other connections are more tenuous: while in the cellar, Bryson rambles cheerfully on about the materials used in homebuilding, and a journey into the garden merits a discussion on public parks. Each room inspires several different but connected sets of thoughts; the kitchen is also a place to discussion nutrition. While the Victorian period in America and England provides the setting of most of Bryson's thoughts, they cover most of western history.

At Home is enormously entertaining, not just to serious-minded students of history who are honestly fascinating by brick-making and the tools of Neanderthals, but to those who enjoy the absurd and grotesque -- history abounds in little stories that make modern audiences' jaws drop in horror or disbelief, and Bryson is a gleeful sharer of those tales. If the content doesn't make you laugh, Bryson's dry wit in delivering these stories will.

Recommended to those who want some light reading that will provide laughs and sneak in a little history to boot.

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