Bill Bryson - At Home: A Short History of Private Life

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Bill Bryson's _At Home_ is breezy, enthralling and convincing

Mar 15, 2011 (Updated Mar 17, 2011)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:If you think history is dull and boring, read this one. You'll change your mind.

Cons:Not a one! Well, the footnote issue and the illustrations...

The Bottom Line: A great look at the homes we live in and how they got that way.


One of the aspects of history that I enjoy reading about is how we have evolved as a culture over time, and one of the best ways to learn about that is to look at how we have lived and changed in our surroundings. With At Home: A Short History of Private Life, author Bill Bryson has really hit the mark with looking at how we have changed through the medium of our living conditions.

Bryson takes a look at our past by using his own home, a recently purchased former rectory bought in the English countryside. With a bit of detective work, he was able to find the original plans, and began to unearth the story of just not the house, but of English history, and the clergyman who built the house, and it all started when he was poking about in the attic and found a door that led -- well, to nowhere, but a spectacular view of the Norfolk countryside. How that door got there is the underlaying mystery of the story.

The house was built at about the same time as one of the most unusual events in history began -- the Great Exhibitition of 1851, where the technological marvels and inventions and life of the world was gathered together in London's Hyde Park for the world to contemplate. Despite warnings, and the building of a tremendous glass structure to house the exhibition that no one thought would work, the Exhibition was a smashing success, and helped to fuel the desire of the Europeans and Americans to have the most modern, the best, of the world had to offer in their own homes. Little matters such as better lighting, the flushing toilet, better colours for the walls, and all sorts of other delights that would make our own world the comfortable place that it is.

Bryson goes about his task by exploring each room of his own home in turn, beginning with the hall, and ending up in the attics. Along the way, he shows how each of these spaces became defined and used over the centuries and how through wanting more privacy and comfort, we came to the rather complicated private residence of today, with the plethora of rooms and why and how we use them.

But what makes this book work so well is that Bryson writes with humour, élan and a certain cockeyed look at human nature. At times I was soberly reminded of some truths in our society, and at other times, I was howling with laughter, and poking at my partner saying 'hey, listen to this...' When a book can do that to me, I know that it is a winner and one that I will be keeping as a permanent resident on my bookshelves.

The story of a house and its inhabitants and contents is a good one, and the narrative moves briskly along, with hardly a dull spot in it. Two aspects of the book I particularly enjoyed, the look at the English Clergyman, and how they made an incredible mark on both science and research, and how the year 1851 turned out to be a huge watermark in private life. That was a surprise for me, as both topics I had never really considered before, but by the time I reached the third chapter, I had a small notebook at my side and furiously jotting down notes as to topics that I knew I wanted to learn more about. Books don't really do that to me much any more, and when there is one out there that interests me like that, and urges me to keep learning new things, well -- it's a treat, like receiving an unexpected present that is something perfect.

This book I can happily recommend to anyone. The writing style is not at all dry or daunting, the stories fascinating, and I'm certain that somewhere, someplace in the book you'll have an aha! moment, and find yourself reading the book for the sheer enjoyment of it. Along with the text, there are several illustrations (these, alas, were not as clear as I would have liked as I was reading this on my Nook), scattered throughout the text. Too, there is a bibliography that is fairly extensive, but unfortunately, the author has the footnotes on his website, which annoyed me a bit, as I like them to be part of book itself, not to have to be hunting for them somewhere else. Despite these two nitpicky things, the book still works very well.

Summing up, this is one that I can happily recommend with five stars overall, and heading for my list of ten books that really were the best of 2010. Highly recommended.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Bill Bryson
2010; Doubleday, Random House, Inc.
ISBN 978-0-385-53359-1


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