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

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Bill Bryson
Doubleday (2010), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover (ISBN 0767919386 / 9780767919388)
Nonfiction (reference/domestic life), 512 pages
Source: purchased (e-book for Amazon Kindle: ASIN: B003F3FJGY)
Reason for reading: Independent Literary Awards non-fiction short list

Opening Lines: “In the autumn of 1850, in Hyde Park in London, there arose a most extraordinary structure: a giant iron-and-glass greenhouse covering nineteen acres of ground and containing within its airy vastness enough room for four St. Paul’s Cathedrals. For the short time of its existence, it was the biggest building on Earth. Known formally as the Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, it was incontestably magnificent, but all the more so for being so sudden, so startlingly glassy, so gloriously and unexpectedly there. Douglas Jerrold, a columnist for the weekly magazine Punch, dubbed it the Crystal Palace, and the name stuck.”

Book description: 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.

Comments: I’ve occasionally reflected on the pace of change during the 20th century, but in this “short history of private life,” Bill Bryson makes a convincing case that the magnitude of change may have been more striking during the 100 years preceding it. Domestic life as we know it today didn’t really exist until pretty recent times, and Bryson explores its development via a room-by-room ramble through a 19th-century English country home – the former parsonage he lives in with his family. And “ramble” is the appropriate word, as it applies to the style of the book as well – there’s really not much in the way of a strong narrative thread here, and that makes reviewing it a little challenging.

Bryson’s writing is highly descriptive and very conversational. I could easily imagine I was hearing it as narration for a documentary miniseries – and, by the way, I think it would make a very good one. It might actually be more effective in that format, come to think of it. It’s full of interesting facts, figures, and individuals, with one digression after another. With a chapter devoted to each room of the house, the author does manage to bring his stories around and tie them back to whichever room he’s talking about before he moves on the next – and that’s helpful, because all the digressions made it difficult for me to remember which room we were in at times!

The book falls a bit short of being “a history of the world without leaving home,” as its focus is more narrow than that. Most of the discussion is focused on British history and society – as might be expected when one’s vehicle is a particularly British country house – with a few side trips to America, continental Europe, India and China (countries whose histories are entwined with England’s at one point or another), and is heavily concentrated on the years between 1600 and 1900. Bryson’s attention isn’t on the big events, but on how people lived – and how very differently they lived at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, since during the last couple of millennia, most people were at one end or the other. The evolution of domestic private life rather coincides with the establishment and growth of the middle class, and this is traced through new inventions, discoveries, and social practices. A few examples:

  • The dining room wasn’t part of most houses until Victorian times, and is the site of discussions of etiquette and upholstery
  • The dressing room inspires talk about fabrics, fashions, and wigs
  • The nursery prompts consideration of how the concept of childhood has changed over time

And here’s something to keep in mind when you arrive at the “bathroom reading” portion of your house tour, tweeted from my own personal experience:

“There are some things that should NOT be read during lunch. Descriptions of 19th century pre-indoor-plumbing London are on that list.”

This was my first exposure to Bill Bryson, and I intend to read more of his work. At Home is both entertaining and informative, and its lack of a strong narrative through-line makes it a book you can readily pick up and put down; I read it straight through, and I’m not sure that was the best approach. But however you approach it, it will fill your head with lots of new factoids to share with friends and family.

Buy this book from an Independent Bookseller 
Buy this book from an Independent Bookseller

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