A review of Bill Bryson's "At Home: A Short History of Private Life," which follows the author as he takes a stroll around his own house and examines the objects and spaces that have defined private life for the last 150 years. Bryson discusses his book Oct. 11 at Town Hall Seattle.
‘At Home: A Short History of Private Life’
by Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 452 pp., $28.95
Most people would be satisfied with a home in a village like one in the county of Norfolk, England, and simply go on enjoying it, but not Bill Bryson (“A Short History of Nearly Everything”). A chance inspection of an attic to determine the source of a drip leads him in an unexpected direction. He begins strolling from room to room, pondering domestic objects around him — a fork, a sofa, a cabinet — and also the function of each space, as well as how it might have evolved through time. The journal he keeps results in a new book, quirky but entertaining, filled with observations about the history of everyday life spanning the last 150 or so years.
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“Houses aren’t refuges from history,” Bryson says. “They are where history ends up.”
He keeps us hopping from a chapter on the hall, to the kitchen, the fuse box, and the dining room, and so on. In the fuse box chapter, he recounts what the pre-electrical age was like. “Open your refrigerator door and you summon forth more light than the total amount enjoyed by most households in the eighteenth century.” Although candles were the usual form of lighting, people burned whatever they could to generate light.
Bryson often deviates from the main theme to examine issues that pertain to science, architecture, fashion or dietary habits. “Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon?” he asks in the Introduction. “(W)hy do forks have four tines and not three or five?” He returns to the topic of sodium in The Dining Room chapter, calling it the mineral “most vital in dietary terms,” and reminding us that we consume, “on average, forty times the amount needed to sustain life.”
Pepper, the dried fruit of a vine that grew only on the coast of India, was highly treasured and accounted for the bulk of the spice trade. “They arrive with gold and depart with pepper,” so said Indian merchants. Nutmeg and mace, rare items, came from islands that are now part of Indonesia. Spices were considered such important commodities that James I declared himself “King of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Puloway and Puloroon.”
Toward the end of the book, the author returns to his attic. In yet another pleasant digression, he provides a portrayal of Charles Darwin, the naturalist, and originator of the theory of the evolution of species. According to one biographer, Darwin had “the authority to speak, when the time was ripe, on variability and transmutation — on evolution, in other words.”
Regardless of whether Bryson has been vested with similar authority, he comments on his chosen topics with charm and wit. Although the sheer amount of information presented in this 452-page book is daunting, it doesn’t overtax our intellect. Most of all, Bryson succeeds in making us realize how much we take our material comforts for granted, as well as the colossal effort it took to achieve this level of affluence.
Bharti Kirchner is the author of four novels.