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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, amusing but sometime inaccurate, December 29, 2010
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This review is from: At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Kindle Edition)
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.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 30, 2012 8:27:32 AM PDT
Woodhathhope says:
Thanks so much for your fascinating and informative review!

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 17, 2014 7:52:47 PM PST
Bruce Martin says:
What is fascinating and informative about a book that is all over the planet? I found many historical inaccuracies in his side trips outside the review of the the rooms of his house, and he distinctly stays away from the most important time in British/American history and religious conflict right at the advent of James I and his heir, the only King of England to be beheaded, Charles I, who was my great Grandfather 26 times removed. Roger Sherman is not even mentioned, but others who have been relegated to histories dustbin have been revived.

This is the first book I've read by the author, and I'm not at all impressed. The entire book on the rooms of his house would take up perhaps 26 pages of this compilation of loose facts desperately trying to send some kind of message of the place he lived in in Norwich.
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