Book Review: At Home

The full title here is At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and in it historian/humorist/homeowner Bill Bryson aims to explore the history of domiciles through a tour of his own aged home in pastoral England. Bryson structures the book by dedicating a chapter to each room or area in the house and delving into historical topics associated with that location. For example, Chapter 6, “The Fuse Box” lets him discuss Thomas Edison’s contributions to in-home electricity and lighting while Chapter 8, “The Dining Room”, gives him a chance to talk about eating habits and how the concept of meal times evolved over the ages. Other chapters and topics include The Kitchen (the spice trade, cooking), The Garden (landscaping, public parks), and the Drawing Room (furniture making and decorating).

And this seems to me to be a pretty good row of hooks on which to hang a series of historical musings, but once you get into it you realize that Bryson doesn’t so much hang his topics neatly on the appropriately labeled hooks as he tosses things all over the place. The chapter on The Nursery, for example, is largely about the plight of the poor in Victorian England. Because, I guess, the poor had a lot of kids? Maybe? Or take the chapter on The Cellar where the author recounts the construction of a canal to link a young New York City with the Great Lakes region. Because both cellars and canals involve concrete, maybe? Or consider the discussion of the great locust plagues of the Central Planes that happens during the chapter on The Study because …well, honestly I’ve got no idea. And just about any chapter is apparently fair game for an extended discussion of architecture.

But you know what? That’s all okay, because this is Bill Bryson, and the man could make interesting reading out of a cholera outbreak. Which he does. In the chapter on The Bathroom. Because of the poop. At Home possesses every bit of Bryson’s trademark charm and wry humor, mixed with interesting stories of people you’ve never heard of and new angles on people you have. I’ve said before that Bryson’s greatest gift is that he can so effortlessly entertain and educate at the same time, and this book is another clear example. He also has a great way of communicating the absurdities of the age, particularly Victorian England and Colonial America, which are the two time periods that account for the bulk of the book’s historical scope. Discussions about things like poisonous wallpaper, wigs made from one’s own hair, and welfare institutions that offer worse fates than those they rescue children from are abundant and fantastic.

If I had one complaint, it’s that even Bryson’s cursory approach to structuring the book around different rooms and associated topics leads to a lot of zig-zagging around history. There’s no sense of progression or perspective as you move from one era to another. Instead, you just get lots of tangentially interconnected vignettes and by the time you get to the back third of the book Bryson is regularly saying things like “it was he, you may recall” to link recurring characters back to events he described a hundred pages earlier.

But that’s easy to shrug off, especially if you take each chapter as more or less self contained. If our school’s History textbooks were written more like At Home and its science texts more like A Short History of Nearly Everything then I think a lot of kids would find studying for tests much more appealing.

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