Book Review: At Home by Bill Bryson
Whenever I’m asked about my favorite authors, Bill Bryson always makes the list. Besides writing a string of humorous yet informative travel narratives, he’s also penned a memoir about his 1950s childhood and a variety of non-fiction books on topics as diverse as the English language, Shakespeare, and a rather grand attempt at a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything. At Home: A Short History of Private Life is another entry in his non-fiction oeuvre.
Bryson makes whatever he is writing about amazingly interesting while also being gently humorous. I’ve always thought that if Bill Bryson wrote the history and English textbooks for schools, everyone would do their required reading and come away bursting with information and insights. Whenever someone tells me that they don’t like non-fiction, I always ask if they’ve read Bill Bryson. To me, he is the epitome of the accessible nonfiction writer, and I would follow him anywhere.
In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, I followed Bryson as he toured his family home, which happens to be an old English parsonage. As he goes through each room, he ruminates about why we live the way we do and how the rooms and things in our homes evolved. The journey through the house is riveting and educational—answering such questions as: Why are salt and pepper the two condiments we keep on our kitchen tables? What does “board” mean in the phrase “room and board?” Why are there four tines on a fork? Why do men have a row of pointless buttons on their suit jacket sleeves?
Each chapter focuses on a different room, allowing Bryson to explore topics such as the history of hygiene (in the bathroom), the advent of electricity (while poking around the fuse box), and sex, death and sleeping (while visiting the bedroom). It is an ingenious way to structure the book, and it gives Bryson lots of leeway to ramble wherever his interests and research took him. For the most part, Bryson focuses on the last 150 years, which encompasses the time from when his home was built until modern times. This is also, as Bryson points out, when “the modern world was really born.”
The book is packed with interesting stories, facts, anecdotes, and histories. If I took the time to tell you about all the ones that interested me, I would be writing a book myself. So, I’ll content myself with sharing a few excerpts from the book that I highlighted while reading. (And even then I had to cut out a few because I highlighted so many.)
On the popularity of hermitages: For a time it was highly fashionable to build a hermitage and install in it a live-in hermit. At Painshill in Surrey, one man signed a contract to live seven years in picturesque seclusion, observing a monastic silence, for £100 a year, but was fired after just three weeks when he was spotted drinking in the local pub.
Statistics on stairs: Everybody trips on stairs at some time or other. It has been calculated that you are likely to miss a step once in every 2,222 occasions you use stairs, suffer a minor accident once in every 63,000 uses, suffer a painful accident once in every 734,000, and need hospital attention once every 3,616,667 uses.
A more interesting side effect of lead paint: One of the quirks of lead poisoning is that it causes an enlargement of the retina that makes some victims see halos around objects—an effect Vincent van Gogh famously exploited in his paintings. It is probable that he was suffering lead poisoning himself. Artists often did.
On servant-master sleep arrangements: Even at home, it was entirely usual for a servant to sleep at the foot of his master’s bed, regardless of what his master might be doing within the bed. The records make clear that King Henry V’s steward and chamberlain both were present when he bedded Catherine of Valois.
On the difficulties of getting medical care while being a woman: As late as 1878 the British Medical Journal was able to run a spirited and protracted correspondence on whether a menstruating woman’s touch could spoil a ham.
On the dangers of life before proper sewer systems: Most sewage went into cesspits, but these were commonly neglected, and the contents often seeped into neighboring water supplies. In the worst cases they overflowed. Samuel Pepys recorded one such occasion in his diary: “Going down into my cellar … I put my foot into a great heap of turds … by which I found that Mr Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.”
I just adored this book and was engrossed through all 512 pages. This is vintage Bryson, and his fans will not be disappointed. And, if you’ve never read a Bill Bryson book before, I strongly encourage you to do so. No one presents history with as much humor, accessibility, and curiosity as Bryson. (And if there is someone who does, I need to know who it is!) And because we all live in homes of some kind, I’m sure everyone will find something of interest in this book. After all, we are all benefiting from the advances and history described in this book. For my part, I know that I’ll never turn on a light, flush a toilet, sit in a chair, or walk up a flight of stairs without thinking of some anecdote from this book. Highly recommended!