Wednesday, November 10, 2010

At Home: a Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson

I love Bill Bryson for so many reasons: his cantankerous old-man-itude, his wonder about everything, his excellent research, his terrific sense of humor...the list goes on. His list of publications reads like a catalogue of the curious mind, and this latest book is no exception. In At Home, he explores the ins and outs of the components of a home, which in turn bring in the entire experience of social life. The slight case of stream-of-consciousness-itis from which it suffers is easily balanced out by the fascinating selection of information that he has chosen. (Even this weakness becomes negligible if not compared to another work in the Bryson canon, the masterful and beautifully organized Short History of Nearly Everything.)

Bryson rightly points out that “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” He then takes us through a tour of his home and the history that shaped it. It can be challenging to figure out how history is shaped by political and social trends, and even more so to figure out how less significant things develop, like the use of beds or forks. As Bryson explains, however, these things are all inter-related. Most of the developments of the past several centuries have served two purposes: to make life more comfortable and to denote wealth to outsiders. In many ways, it is precisely that simple, but the broader implications of that reality is a bit more complex.

Bryson takes us through the histories of public exhibitions, building materials, architectural trends, hygenic practices, social developments, and many more sections of family life, and the information he packs in is staggering. It's a bit hard to explain how it all fits together because that's the entire point of the book, but luckily, it's a lot like one of those magic eye paintings, where all of a sudden, the picture becomes clear from the right perspective. The connections of each set of information to its respective room are not always as clear as they could be, but the substance is engaging enough that I doubt you'll mind. If nothing else, this is a fascinating collection of miscellany, and well worth your time.

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