Review: At Home by Bill Bryson

(And before anyone can ask… yes, the trip post is coming. I just need to sort out the five bazillion pictures I took. But in brief: it was awesome, the wedding was lovely, and I continue to boggle at how much they eat over there. And their concept of sane driving distances.)

(Hmm. there should be an image of At Home here, but Posterous doesn’t seem to be co-operating. Sorry!)

I had a few minutes to spare at Heathrow, so I picked up a book I’d been wanting to read for a long time: At Home, by Bill Bryson. This is Bryson’s third history book, I think, after Mother Tongue (on the evolution of language) and A Short History of Nearly Everything (what it says on the cover.) This time, Bryson takes on the mundane: the history of our domestic lives.

Full review under the cut.

At Home sounds boring on the surface, but it really isn’t. Granted, I have a soft spot for history, and an even softer spot for its more mundane details, but the detail and scope of Bryson’s work is staggering. He uses his own home, an 18th-century rectory in rural England, as a jumping-off point, and each room as a further starting-point for a fascinating sociological history of Europe and America. For instance, remember how much was made of Shakespeare awarding his wife the ‘second-best bed’ in his will? At the time, since beds were expensive and hard to maintain, the best bed would have been in the sitting room, more an object of display and pride than something that was actually used. The second-best bed was in all likelihood the marital bed, and a more accurate indicator of old Will’s feelings for his missus. (A better question would be why the bed was singled out, as since she was his wife his estate would default to her, but, alas, it is one that we will never know the answer to.)

Bryson’s style is, as always, eminently readable, and he has a knack for coining turns of phrase that are good for a laugh, or at least a smirk. He takes what could have been a dull, dry, academic work (there are 500+ works in his biblography) and makes it fun and easily accessible, liberally peppering it with interesting, tangential bits of information that serve to deepen the experience for the reader. 

In short: If you have the least interest in history, or if indeed even the merest smattering of curiosity about how many of the things (electricity, furniture, even a bare minumum of comfort) we take for granted came about, you could do far, far worse than At Home. Five stars. 

 

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