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Bill Bryson – At Home

October 4, 2010

114. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (2010)

Length: 438 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction; History

Started: 09 September 2010
Finished: 15 September 2010

Where did it come from? From the publishers.
Why do I have it? I like microhistories and other interesting takes on history, and what I’ve read of Bryson, I’ve enjoyed.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 09 August 2010.

Bryson wanders from
topic to topic as he
goes from room to room.

Summary: Bill Bryson’s latest book is, as the title promises, a history of the home and the contents therein. It’s focused around the rectory in which he and his family currently live, and each chapter focuses on a different room, so the chapter on the dining room involves a history of eating customs, the bathroom is a history of sanitation, the dressing room a history of fashion, and so on. Although Bryson’s goal was to “write a history of the world without leaving home”, he mostly stays focused on the time – and country – in which his house was built, namely Victorian England, although he does look further back when the topic demands it. Rather than the big sweeping events of battles and politics, though, he focuses on the oft-forgotten side of history: the history of everyday life.

Review: I wasn’t crazy about this book, although I think that was because there was a disconnect between what I was expecting and what this book actually delivered. Somewhere along the way – either from the book description or the back cover copy or in some dark recess of my own brain – I got the impression that this book was going to be a straight-up microhistory of the objects within a house, not of the house itself. To some extent, Bryson does provide this – we get the history of pepper shakers and wallpaper and windows and bathtubs. It’s also mixed in with the history of some related topics outside the house, like the history of sewers and lawns and ice and kerosene. These things are presented with Bryson’s usual rambling wit, packed with fascinating tidbits of trivia and useful bits of etymology. These things were all enjoyable, interesting, and why I picked up the book in the first place, and I’d say that they constituted maybe 1/2 to 2/3 of the book.

Unfortunately, the other 1/3 was more a history of the house itself – i.e. of architecture – and mini-biographies of architects. This fascinated me a lot less, and it was unfortunately concentrated towards the front of the book, which made it really hard to get into and pretty slow to get through. Architecture has never been a particular interest of mine, and Bryson’s thesis for much of the book seemed to be “Hey, those dead rich white guys sure built some crazy big houses, huh?” A comparative element may have helped pique my interest, but Bryson’s focus stays pretty narrowly on Britain (and occasionally the Colonies.)

Another part of the reason I struggled with this one is that I’ve got a terrible head for both names and dates. Particularly when peoples’ stories are being told in two or three paragraphs or less, their names fall right out of my head, and when they got brought up again a hundred pages later, I could barely remember who they were, let alone place them in any meaningful context. Context was also an issue with the dates; some bouncing around through time is inevitable with history organized in this way. Ordinarily, that doesn’t bother me too badly, but I had a hard time keeping the order of things straight, and thus no real feel for the big picture. For example, the Window Tax was discussed in one chapter, and the Brick Tax in another, but I couldn’t keep straight which had happened first, and how it all related to the bricked-up windows you see in some British country houses. That’s actually a good way of summarizing how I felt about the book as a whole: Bryson’s great on the details, but it never really gelled into a cohesive whole for me… or, to put it in the language of the book, we’ve got all the rooms, but I still can’t quite see the house. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This one will be good for people who like Bryson’s style, as well as those who like Victorian literature, or novels set in 1800s Britain.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Some time after we moved into a former Church of England rectory in a village of tranquil anonymity in Norfolk, in the easternmost part of England, I had occasion to go up into the attic to look for the source of a slow but mysterious drip.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 18: “At another meal he could choose from a platter of tench, a ham, three fowls, two roasted ducks, a neck of pork, plum pudding and plum tart, apple tart, and miscellaneous fruit and nuts, all washed down with red and white wines, beer and cider.” – a freshwater food fish, Tinca tinca, of Europe and Asia that can survive short periods out of water.
  • p. 89: ““When the lady of fashion chooses her footman without any other consideration than his height, shape and tournure of his calf, it is not surprising that she should find a domestic who has no attachment for the family,” she sniffed.” – turn; contour; figure.
  • p. 142: “The legs had flowing curves and luscious feet; the arms swept along to terminal olutes that were a pleasure to grasp and a delight to behold.” – I can’t actually find a web definition for this, although it’s clear from context what it means. ARC typo?
  • p. 245: “Soon afterwards, his knee ankylosed, leaving him with a permanent limp.” – to unite or grow together, as the bones of a joint or the root of a tooth and its surrounding bone.

**All quotes come from an ARC and may not reflect the final published text.**

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2010 8:00 am

    I took a class in early Roman and Byzantine architecture, which makes me feel like I should enjoy/understand all architectural remarks from now on. But that doesn’t really happen and actually I still find architecture rather dull. Maybe I can just skip over those bits.

    • October 13, 2010 9:41 am

      Jenny – I don’t know how much knowing about Roman architecture would really help with the type of architectural stuff that’s in this book… the chapter on the bathroom, maybe.

  2. October 4, 2010 9:44 am

    I do like Bryson’s style, but I’m not sure that I want to read about objects in a house. I’ll have to think on this one.

    • October 13, 2010 9:42 am

      bermudaonion – It’s not just about the objects, but also a history of everyday life… not the big events that make history books.

  3. October 4, 2010 2:20 pm

    “presented with Bryson’s usual rambling wit, packed with fascinating tidbits of trivia and useful bits of etymology”

    This sounds like something I’d really enjoy: I’m glad you brought it to my attention!

    • October 13, 2010 9:43 am

      BIP – I hope you get the chance to check it out, then come back and let me know what you think!

  4. October 4, 2010 8:07 pm

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this more. I do like architecture awfully much, so I think I’ll add it to my massive list of Books I Want To Borrow From the Library (When I Remember, Provided I Can Find Them On the Shelves).

    • October 13, 2010 9:44 am

      Memory – If you also like microhistory-type-stuff, then this book sounds right up your alley. Also, I love the name of your list. :)

  5. October 4, 2010 10:01 pm

    I have to admit, Bryson fell flat for me in Notes from a Small Island.

    • October 15, 2010 10:54 am

      Omni – I haven’t read that one yet; but I have found that Bryson’s kind of hit-or-miss for me a lot of the time.

  6. October 13, 2010 5:51 am

    I rather felt this way about Bryson’s A Short History of Almost Everything, though I enjoyed it – a disconnect between the book I thought I was getting and the book I actually read (makes you wonder if the blurb writer had actually read it).

    • October 13, 2010 9:45 am

      Ela – I haven’t read ASHoAE, although I’ve had it recommended to me several times. I’ll ignore the blurb, if you’ll tell me what’s it really about? :)


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