Is there anything Bill Bryson isn't interested in? He moves from one subject to the next with equal amounts of genuine enthusiasm. And we're not talking about just the really remarkable stuff - a lot of what gets Bryson going seems quite mundane. Mousetraps, for instance. Once he has you hooked, you too realize that even mousetraps are pretty fascinating after all.
There's no point looking for a theme to At Home, even though it's nominally a social history of the home, specifically Bryson's home, a former rectory in Norfolk, built in 1851. Going from room to room is just an excuse for Bryson to expound on whatever he finds interesting. It might be best to take the book as a series of loosely connected magazine articles or short essays. You can skip around without losing the thread, because there isn't one.
Most of the history is Victorian, but there are side trips to the prehistoric Britain, 19th century America, and the recent past. This is not an academic book, so there are no footnotes, which is a shame. Although Bryson usually credits sources within the text, now and then he makes an outrageous statement without attribution. One that had me scrambling for some supporting evidence was a claim that Elizabeth I admired, then scooped some silverware into her purse at dinner in a nobleman's house while on her annual royal progress. Even more remarkable was a statement that one third of all women in London aged 15-25 in 1851 were prostitutes. Really?! After browsing through the lengthy and excellent bibliography, I found the instruction to go to Bryson's website for notes and sources, but found only that they are "coming soon."
Chances are you won't be interested in everything that takes Bryson's fancy, but no worry. If you find your attention waning during a discussion of furniture varnishes, it isn't long before he's off to vitamins or Thomas Jefferson's wine collection or Ötzi the Ice Man.
I'll admit that I might have skipped this book if Bryson's name wasn't on the cover, and wondered if it could have been published at all without his name and popularity. His early works are still my favorites, more or less in the order they were written. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America still makes me laugh, so does Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, and Notes from a Small Island, and I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away (Notes from a Big Country). I expect I'll continue to read just about anything Bryson writes, but I have to agree with some other reviewers who look forward to his travel writing more than his excursions into weightier topics.
I adore this book. I sat up late reading it, and I woke up at 4:30am (really) to continue reading it. I expect to press the book into the hands of several friends with a stern warning about returning it *immediately* after they finish.
Yet, I have a hard time summarizing the book in a manner that will make you understand my enthusiasm. When I tried to explain to someone why this book was so wonderful, she crinkled up her nose and gave me a "You gotta be kidding" look. This book discusses so many topics, from the history of the toilet to the reasons behind the 1851 Great Exhibition to the impact of world exploration on furniture building, that any description sounds like Bryson threw a jumble of facts into a book and had done with it. On the other hand, I explained to my friend just one of the anecdotes (the one that ends with "Nothing -- really, absolutely nothing -- says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century's most daring and iconic building was entrusted to a gardener") and she got interested. And she giggled.
Because somehow, amazingly, Bill Bryson ties together this collection of historical anecdotes and "what really happened" within a clear and recognizable structure: the Victorian parsonage in which he and his wife live, which was built in 1851. The chapters walk us through each room and the items within it. In "The nursery," for instance, Bryson debunks the oft-cited premise that "before the 16th century there was no such thing as childhood;" talks about Victorian tools for childbirth (and how a doctor's reluctance to adopt obstetrical forceps in 1817 changed history when Princess Charlotte died in childbirth); discusses the slow evolution of child labor laws; and mentions how Fredrich Engels embezzled from his family business to support his friend Karl Marx in London. And, honest, that's just a sample. Bryson doesn't flit from one subject to another, or at least it never seems like it when you're reading; he goes into exhaustive depth about a lot of subjects, like the fascinating person you wish you were seated next to at a dinner party (but somehow never seem to be).
And besides: He is funny. Bryson has a wonderful droll sense of humor that made me laugh aloud many times, though it never gets in the way of imparting information. On several occasions I interrupted my husband to read him a a section of text -- something that usually annoys him -- and he forgave me every time. Here's one of them, in a section about the popularity of household servants: "At Elveden, the Guiness family estate in Suffolk, the household employed sixteen gamekeepers, nine underkeepers, twenty-eight warreners (for culling rabbits), and two dozen miscellaneous hands -- seventy-seven people in all -- just to make sure they and their guests always had plenty of flustered birds to blow to smithereens." There's plenty of ways Bryson could have said that formally, but the insertion of his personal view made me giggle. (And, oh, estate visitors managed to slaughter over 100,000 birds every year, so those staff were not idle.)
By the time I finished reading the book, I was struck by several things: How often coincidence influences history; the number of brilliant technical innovations introduced by people with absolutely no business sense (one example: Eli Whitney and his partners demanded a 1/3 share of any cotton harvest, without recognizing how easy it was to pirate the design of the cotton gin); how often people were oh-so-sure of things that weren't so (like what causes disease); and how many amazing inventions we take for granted.
I urge you to buy this book. If nothing else, reading it will mean that YOU are the fascinating person whom everyone wants to sit next to at the next dinner party.
There are two major factors that make this one of the least entertaining books by Bill Bryson.
First, it's nearly humorless. One can't read In a Sunburned Country,A Walk in the Woods, or I'm a Stranger Here Myself without laughing until you cry at least a few times, and snorting in amusement often enough that you think twice about reading in public. This book, though, had a handful of lines that might provoke a quirk at the corner of your mouth, and that's about it.
Second, it's not at all what it claims. Despite repeated assertion that this book is about how all history ends up in the home, it's much more an exercise in History Through the Lens of the Home. Most chapters have nearly nothing to do with the room to which they're linked. The chapter on the Larder is entirely about servitude in England. The two are linked only in that the larder is one of the rooms typically visited only by servants. The chapter on the Garden, possibly the most tightly coupled example of chapter room and topic, dabbles briefly in the history of artificial fertilizers, but then spends the majority of its words on parks, public and private. In no chapter is there a round-up at the end where Bryson links back what, exactly, Olmstead's plans for Central Park in New York City have to do with a home's garden, and there's not even a pretext of assuming the latter at all affected the former. I'm still not clear on why the Drawing Room was coupled with a vast survey of British architecture.
What we're left with is a scattered history of mostly the past few hundred years and mostly England, though with a solid dose of United States, some continental Europe, and a smattering of the rest of the world. It's interesting, sometimes fascinating, but also undirected and repetitive. For example, two chapters discuss architecture extensively.
And then, of course, the dwindling descriptions of the house and rooms themselves. At the beginning of the book, there are often several paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter explaining what the room is. Most of us haven't heard of a Larder, and while we may know that those big open residences of the old days were called Halls, we may not really think of a hall in a modern house as a sort of stripped down shrunken version of the same. By the end, he doesn't even bother. The chapter on the Attic contains no description or explanation of the room's heritage. These, along with the repeated references to Mr. Marsham, the clergyman who built the house, attempt to link the somewhat random bits of trivia into a narrative but end up just feeling a little bit tacked-on.
Mr. Bryson goes to great pains to link bits of historical trivia - making sure we remember that the man involved in pushing England to recognize and protect its ancient sites was a descendant of a man mentioned in a previous chapter who fell down a well - but doesn't expend a fraction of that effort doing what he stated was his intention: showing how history ends up in the home.
on July 25, 2010
This book changed my world. Well, at least my perception of my world.
At Home is a fascinating account of how we got where we are today, domestically speaking. I read it whist living in a non-western, non-English speaking country and it illuminated for me the historical reasons behind some of the assumptions I make which are at odds with the society I'm currently living in, like why I think my dining room should be bigger than the one in my rented house is. Sure, knowing dates of major battles is important, but this book is history as it was meant to be: relevant, enlightening, and funny.
on December 29, 2010
A nice jaunty review of the development of the modern personal environment taking as its jumping off point the author's residence in a 1800's English former rectory. Bryson is trying to channel the James Burke spirit.
The issue I have with the work, despite the fact that it is interesting and readable, is that much of the research seems to extend only as far as wikipedia and which then produces the author's glossy summations of an entire area of knowledge.
This can be very dangerous for the reader who takes everything an author says unskeptically. I did a little light 'fact checking' one some of the facts and things come of not quite so simplistic as Bryson's overview.
For instance, in the second chapter relates that the English priestly class was essentially a sinecure in the 18th century that paid vast rental sums to the local rector, required a college degree but no specific theology knowledge, and required very little actual religious work other than to read from a book of sermons once a week. Hence the Church of England created "a class of well-educated, wealthy people who had immense amounts of time on their hands. In consequence, many of them began, quite spontaneously, to do remarkable things". Bryson then gives a list of English Religious and their accomplishments in this period.
The problem is that further investigation reveals none of the listed people reinforce the criterion laid out by Bryson. Thomas Bayes was non-conformist not COE, he had a theology degree and his first publication was a theological work, not mathematics. George Garrett was a curate of his father's church, not a rector, and did not draw an independent income from it. His work on submarines was financed by private fund raising- not from some lucrative church position. Rev. Stephen Hawker had a theological degree and took a posting at a poor parish on the cliff of Cornwall for most of his religious life. Rev Octavius Pickard-Cambridge had a posting that made him only 60 pounds a year and contrary to Bryson idea of endless idle time compelled him to walk to his post 10 miles each day. He also had a theology degree. Canon William Greenwell had a degree in theology. His work in archeology was afford time because he was the bursar of Durham University (where Bryson is now attached) not because he was a parish rector. Rev Laurence Sterne published numerous sermons in addition to his literary works.
Edmund Cartwright seems to be the best fit to Bryson's criterion, but even here we see that his inventing efforts were supplemented by local investors not from some fat rent role. The second part of his career he wasnt even a parish priest- he had moved to London to be in closer contact with the Royal Soceity.
Further, contrary to the portrait that the priestly class was just hanging around with time on their hands, Rev Cartwright biography make clear that his initial scientific investigations began because he spent much of his time visiting the sick in his parish and since there was no other medical practitioner in the area he undertook some self-taught medical study so he could aid them.
The more peculiar thing however is that Bryson cites this period in History when he believes that Anglican sinecures afforded educated, not particularly religious people abundant free time as a unique crucible in which much of the modern world began. Not only his he wrong about the cushy livings (poor as a church mouse anyone?), the irreligiousness, and the free time for a reverend who would need to make his rounds on foot, he ignores the long history of contributions of Christian religious to Western civilization. Gregor Mendel, Bishop Berkeley, Christopher Clavius, Fr. James Cullen, Boscovich-Polymath etc.
Further Bryson completely overlooks the religious nature of Rev. James Woodeforde's delightful diaries, perhaps only familiar with the highly condensed one volume version.
So in summary, this is a interesting work, but one that should be viewed with some circumspection. Many of the stories he presents are glossy summaries- but one that invites the cautious reader into avenues of interesting personal research.
This is a 3.5 star book.
on August 6, 2010
This book is very much in the fashion of his Short History of Nearly Everything. It contains almost no first person narrative and mostly tries to adhere topic. The topic is so broad, however, that almost anything can be in some way connected to it and at times it feels a bit sprawling. That the stories bear some passing connection to the topic is hardly surprising. It would be hard not to. But, I didn't read this book as a scholarly work. I wouldn't want to read that book. Bill Bryson's talent for selecting the funniest, remarkable, shocking, gruesome and just plain interesting things about any topic, means that if he wrote a book about the history of fingernails, or hammers or shoelaces, I would read it.
My one serious gripe with the book is the lack of illustrations. There are some pictures, but countless other times, when he's describing some invention, or article of clothing, or building, and going on about how remarkable it is, I found myself running to wikipedia to see what he was talking about.
Basically, if you like Bill Bryson, you will like this book. If you've never read any Bill Bryson before I would recommend starting with a different book. A Walk in the Woods is a good one.A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
If this book were a house, it would be one of those charmingly odd edifices put up by a single builder with a determinedly eccentric vision. The floor plan might be odd, and it might be a little hard to say exactly what architectural style it is, and on occasion you might find a gable where you'd expected a chimney. But you'd love it anyway.
_At Home_ doesn't really have a theme, or an argument to advance. Rather, it's an interwoven fabric of anecdotes, historical tidbits, excursions, diversions, and useless but fascinating facts. Its organization (as a tour of the author's house) is just enough to give it structure and keep it from being a mere collection of curios. To pull this off requires absolutely top-notch writing skills--and Bryson has them.
Still, this isn't a book to read in search of a cohesive understanding of much of anything. Rather, it's a book to be rambled through, eying the delightful scenery. (There's a more-than-passing resemblance to James Burke's _Connections_ series.) For example, the chapter on "The Passage" touches on the Eiffel Tower, the Vanderbilts, Thomas Edison's mania for concrete houses, the telephone, and the biggest mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. I'm not sure how much information any given reader will retain, but with writing this good, who cares?
This is a big, sweeping story. It combines very broad historical scope with closely-observed minute detail. I did spot one or two places where Bryson's facts are incomplete or open to dispute. (To take a trivial example, the relationship among bushels, quarts, and liters is mis-stated.) I'm happy to let them go as quibbles; in general, Bryson is pretty good at overturning anecdotal history and providing a good, well-sourced, thoughtful synthesis.
So don't look for a thesis, and don't approach _At Home_ as a textbook. Its joys are those of breadth, not depth. Step right in. Wander around. Make yourself comfortable. You might even get a little lost, but you won't mind.
on January 3, 2012
To his legions of fans, it will perhaps seem beside the point to complain that a Bill Bryson opus is an amateurish piece of work. Bryson has always been rather proud of his "I'm no expert, just some schmo from Iowa" schtick, and he'd probably be the first to admit that he's not in the business of providing original insights into anything at all. Rather, he's a kind of cultural pack rat, lining his literary nest with shiny pieces of trivia and bon mots whose sole purpose is diversion, not real understanding.
Such writing has its place. Rather to my surprise, upon reviewing the list on the flyleaf, I find that I've now read seven Bryson books, so clearly he suits some occasional need in my own reading life--usually the need for non-taxing reading while drifting in and out of a doze on long-haul airplane flights. But with _At Home_ Bryson may finally have worn out his welcome in my particular home. This is a scattershot, disjointed, and superficial piece of flim-flam, more frustrating than amusing.
The conceit of the book is that Bryson is using a tour of the 19th century village rectory his family calls home to reflect on the all the "little things" in life that led to its creation. Or that's *supposed* to be the conceit. In reality, it amounts to little more than naming chapters after rooms--the actual content of the chapters is, more often than not, haphazard. For instance, his chapter entitled "The Study" is really entirely about vermin, the wafer-thin connection to his own house being that he sometimes catches mice in the room. Similarly, the "Cellar" chapter is about building materials, the "Plum Room" chapter is about Neo-classical architecture (for no fathomable reason), the "Hall" chapter mostly about architecture, and the "Scullery" chapter is about 19th century servitude.
That's just a quibble, though. My real problems with the book are three-fold. In the first place, Bryson hopscotches so quickly from topic to topic that he this reader got whiplash. _At Home_ attempts to cover hundreds of different topics, but in so doing dooms itself to covering absolutely nothing well. Take any single topic Bryson talks about--from Monticello to anesthesia to wigs to Alexander Graham Bell--and the Wikipedia article will offer the reader far more information in five minutes than is to be found in this tome. Just as he manages to pique your interest in a particular topic, Bryson zips off on a tangent, or the tangent of a tangent of a tangent, resulting in an epic of superficiality for the ADHD Age.
The second problem is that long stretches of the book are just plain boring. Bryson is evidently a great admirer of "stately homes" and 18th-19th architecture, so long chapters are devoted to just that, but with a concentration on the least interesting aspects of them--which is to say, biographical details of the architects who designed them. If you actually want to know what life in one of these stately homes was like, however--or even to get an idea of what they look like--Google Is Your Friend, for you will glean little from Bryson's breathless survey.
Finally, despite its ambitions to be a "history of private life," the book is no such thing. Except for very brief detours to Paris (for the Eiffel Tower) and Venice (Palladian architecture), the book is exclusively about Anglo-American homes, mostly of the privileged classes. What's more, 90% or more of what he discusses pertains specifically to the 18th and 19th centuries. Anyone looking for an examination of developments in private life in other places or at other periods should certainly look elsewhere.
In fairness, some of the chapters work much better than others. The chapter on "The Bedroom" mostly covers the well-trodden ground of wacky Victorian sexual mores, but is good for some laughs, and the chapter on "The Bathroom" (devoted to pre-Modern sanitation) is predictably full of delightfully stomach-churning details. If the entire book had been written with as much verve, I would have come away with much better feelings about the project.
As it stands, however, the book seems like an enormous serving of fluff--a giant tub of Cool Whip in lieu of the meat-and-potatoes I was expecting. Like a late-spring snow flurry, Bryson creates a minor tempest of swirling facts, but none of them cohere into anything memorable, and most will have melted away within 48 hours of closing the book. Bryson can and should do better. 2.5 stars.
Author Bill Bryson lives in a former rectory in Norfolk, England. Standing on the roof one day in search of a leaky tile, he contemplates the millennia of human habitation in that flat region and has an epiphany: history, he says, is made up of the stories of people "going about their daily business--eating, sleeping, having sex, and endeavoring to be amused." Bryson had recently completed a book called "A Short History of Nearly Everything," but clearly he had more to say about history after all. This book is the wonderful result: a book about home life, a book he thought could be written "in carpet slippers."
Bryson focuses (if I may use that word loosely) on the last 150 years, beginning with the building of his own house in 1851 by the parson Thomas Marsham. This was a census year, he tells us, and in 1851 Britain had 20,959,477 people, 1.6% of the world's population. Britain produced half of the world's coal and iron, controlled two thirds of shipping, and banks had more money on deposit than all the other countries combined.
He strolls through the rooms of his house, using each room as a springboard for wide-ranging subjects. The hall he calls "the most semantically demoted room in the house," because originally the hall WAS the house, containing all its activities, with a fire pit wafting smoke up through a hole in the roof. In the fourteenth century fireplaces became popular, making space in upper stories for more rooms. As rooms became dedicated to specific activities, the hall became what it is today: "a shrunken vestibule, a small utilitarian square with cupboards and hooks where we take off boots and hang jackets; a clear preliminary to the house itself."
And so it goes. The drawing room? Improvements in agriculture and animal breeding led to the end of small farms, to the Enclosure Act and the amassing of huge wealth, much of which was spent on elegant living. The study? That's where the Brysons set the mousetraps, and he often hears "a sudden snap marking a terminal event;" cue discussion of rats, bedbugs, weevils, mites, lice...
The dining room? Here we spot the salt and pepper cellars. Why not pepper and cardamom, he wonders, or salt and cinnamon? This inspires a discussion of the spice trade, world exploration leading to the Empire, the Sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857. And don't forget the Boston Tea Party; tea was serious business, and the British liked their tea with sugar, much of which came from Jamaican plantations which were made possible by the acquisition of African slaves. Unbelievably still in the dining room, Bryson indulges our need to know why forks have four tines; read it for yourself if you want to know why, but he assures us that the four-tine fork is most pleasing to us--it's a "fundamental fact of flatware psychology."
From the cellar of the rectory we get a whirlwind history of building techniques. Bryson mentions that bricks fell out of favor during the Regency period, partly because they were taxed to pay for the loss of American revenue and defray the cost of the war. (The theme of taxation seems to be a strong one in this largely British social history.) Turning to other building materials, architect John Nash worked in stone and stucco cladding, and Bryson tells us that "no one, other than perhaps the Luftwaffe, has done more to change the look of London than Nash did." There is much, much more on building design and construction, including extensive discussion of Monticello and Mt. Vernon in the U.S. Regarding these two residences, Bryson writes, "Had Thomas Jefferson and George Washington merely been plantation owners who built interesting houses, that would have been accomplishment enough; but in fact of course between them they also instituted a political revolution, conducted a long war, created and tirelessly served a new nation, and spent years away from home."
I could go on...it's addicting, really. The Statue of Liberty? Curtain wall construction holding up a skin "the thickness of an Easter bunny." The London sewers? They were in crisis at the time Bryson's rectory was built, leading to unpleasantness and disease; but civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette built a brand new system between 1859 and 1865. "Late in life he was knighted, but he had never really received the fame he deserved; sewer engineers seldom do." Darwin and the dawning acceptance of just how long the world had existed? This was a time of enormous interest in artifacts, which were being "pulled from the ground like potatoes." Fortunately Britain passed the Ancient Monuments Protection Act in 1882.
As we near the end of the rectory tour, Bryson describes the erosion of wealth among the upper classes late in the 19th century, due to factors such as a deep agricultural depression and the newly instituted death duties ("such a reliable source of revenue, and so popular with the millions who didn't have to pay them"). Art and cultural treasures began hitting the auction blocks, and thousands of stately homes and parsonages were sold or converted to institutional use.
The main thrust of the book is that the late 19th century was a time of enormous social change; private life was transformed socially, technologically, and in every other way you can imagine--at least for the developed nations of the world. Will the rest of the world demand the same, and if they do, will the planet have the resources necessary to make it happen?
But with Bryson it's never a straight path from idea to conclusion, and that's the charm of his books. He darts from one topic to another, seemingly at random but without ever really losing the thread of his thesis. Fascinating! I listened to the Audible unabridged version, narrated by the author with all the enthusiasm of a a person seeing the material for the first time and finding it deeply fascinating.
For all the pleasure this book gave me, I believe that Bill Bryson is at his best and most original when writing about his own experiences and acquaintances. At Home: A Short History of Private Life is vastly entertaining, but for this author, commenting on history is like fishing in a barrel; just too easy. Recommended, because while I don't think it's his best, it's still pretty excellent.
Linda Bulger, 2010
on April 12, 2011
Like other reviewers have commented, this is not a "normal" Bryson book. It is almost devoid of his usual humor, although he tries to put a lot of wit into it.
What I don't like is that fact that, interesting as 75% of the material is, it doesn't really relate to what is "at home" or a "history of private life". I honestly believe that anyone could have written the majority of this book after doing research via wikipedia. It's just like a collection of wiki articles, tied together by some great (and not so good) segues.
There are a LOT of neat stories about everything from the British tea empire, to a history of massive city-destroying fires. But Bryson goes, quite often, far afield in his relating of them.
He does not truly dwell on why things in the home are like they are: why does a fork have four tines? he asks early on. The answer, when given, is "by convention". The reasoning and engineering behind the design of the old black rotary telephone is a definitely more spelled out, but Bryson takes much more time relating some of the history of A.G. Bell, and T. Edison. Nice background, but, again, not the "point" of the book.
Luckily, we got this as a free audio book. I am glad, quite glad, as Bryson would say, that I didn't spend a dime on it. I don't "hate" the book, but I don't think it's true to its title.