Houses aren t refuges from history. They are where history ends up. Read more...
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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 has one of the liveliest, most inquisitive minds on the planet, and he is a master at turning the seemingly isolated or mundane fact into an occasion for the most diverting exposition imaginable. His wit and sheer prose fluency make "At Home" one of the most entertaining books ever written about private life."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2010-08-09
- Reviewer: Staff
Bryson (A Short History of Everything) takes readers on a tour of his house, a rural English parsonage, and finds it crammed with 10,000 years of fascinating historical bric-a-brac. Each room becomes a starting point for a free-ranging discussion of rarely noticed but foundational aspects of social life. A visit to the kitchen prompts disquisitions on food adulteration and gluttony; a peek into the bedroom reveals nutty sex nostrums and the horrors of premodern surgery; in the study we find rats and locusts; a stop in the scullery illuminates the put-upon lives of servants. Bryson follows his inquisitiveness wherever it goes, from Darwinian evolution to the invention of the lawnmower, while savoring eccentric characters and untoward events (like Queen Elizabeth I's pilfering of a subject's silverware). There are many guilty pleasures, from Bryson's droll prose--"What really turned the Victorians to bathing, however, was the realization that it could be gloriously punishing"--to the many tantalizing glimpses behind closed doors at aristocratic English country houses. In demonstrating how everything we take for granted, from comfortable furniture to smoke-free air, went from unimaginable luxury to humdrum routine, Bryson shows us how odd and improbable our own lives really are. (Oct. 5)
A house's history comes alive
It is always difficult to review a Bill Bryson book, since I’m tempted to indulge in sweeping declarations (“Bill Bryson may well be the wittiest man on the planet,” for instance) and then support such bold assertions with numerous quotes from his book. Problem is, I also want to say that he is exceptionally insightful, that he sports a keen sense of the English language and its peccadilloes, and on and on. And somehow I have to fit all that into the brief space of a review. Never has this been more the case than with his latest book, At Home.
At Home builds upon his earlier work, A Brief History of Nearly Everything, this time narrowing the scope of the investigation to the everyday things found within (and about) the home: the architecture; the individual rooms; the plumbing, electrical and communications systems; the furniture. Bryson’s English countryside home is a Victorian parsonage where “nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped.” But “this old house” makes a very convenient jumping-off point for a look at topics as far-reaching as the spice trade with the Moluccas (did you know that the difference between herbs and spices is that herbs come from the leafy parts of plants and spices come from the non-leafy parts?), the Eiffel Tower (Eiffel also designed the skeleton of the Statue of Liberty, whose fragile bronze shell is a mere 1/10” thick), bat warfare (the plan was to launch up to a million bomb-laden bats over Japan at the height of WWII; when they came to roost, the bombs would go off, or so the theory went) and Samuel Pepys’ inadvertent descent into a basement afloat in human waste (“. . . which doth trouble me”).
Somehow, curiously but inevitably, all of these seemingly unconnected particulars fit together neatly within the framework of a house. As Bryson notes in the introduction, history is “masses of people doing ordinary things.” And the common house? “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”