Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Delights of House and Home

At Home by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I have a brain crush on Bill Bryson. I find his books entertaining, insightful and delightfully humorous. "At Home" did not disappoint, giving a fascinating, rambling, Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink view of world history.

The book is structured into chapters based on the different parts of a house, such as the kitchen, the drawing room, the cellar, the bedroom, etc. In the introduction, Bryson explains that he and his wife moved into a former church rectory in a village in eastern England, and some odd quirks of the Victorian house piqued his interest. Soon he was investigating why things are the way they are, and he shares some interesting stories of yesteryear. For example, why are salt and pepper the two main spices on a dining table? How was cement discovered? Who decided how stairs should be sized? When was the fuse box created? Why is there a telephone in the hallway? And on and on, covering dozens of inventions and events.

One of the many things I liked about this book was the wide variety of topics discussed and how briskly Bryson moves through them. If he hits a subject you don't care for or one that you already know about, just wait a few minutes and he'll move on to something else. For example, during the chapter on the bathroom he discusses various cholera epidemics in England and who figured out that contaminated water was the problem, which is a subject I'm familiar with having read the excellent book "The Ghost Map." So I waited patiently for Bryson to summarize the cholera info, and very soon he was on to discussing how London's sewer system was developed. Brilliant!

The book is wonderfully well-written -- as all Bryson books are -- and to try and pull good quotes is an exercise in retyping most of the text. But here are a few tidbits:

"It was unquestionably a strange world. Servants constituted a class of humans whose existences were fundamentally devoted to making certain that another class of humans would find everything they desired within arm's reach more or less the moment it occurred to them to desire it." (from The Scullery and Larder)

"Salt is now so ubiquitous and cheap that we forget how intensely desirable it once was, but for much of history it drove men to the edge of the world." (from The Dining Room)

"To the unending exasperation of the Chinese authorities, Britain became particularly skilled at persuading Chinese citizens to become opium addicts -- university courses in the history of marketing really ought to begin with British opium sales -- so much so that by 1838 Britain was selling almost five million pounds of opium to China every year." (from The Dining Room)

"The real problem with beds, certainly by the Victorian period, was that they were inseparable from that most troublesome of activities, sex ... To avoid arousal, women were instructed to get plenty of fresh air, avoid stimulating pastimes like reading and card games, and above all never to use their brains more than was strictly necessary." (from The Bedroom)

"So Whitney's [cotton] gin not only helped make many people rich on both sides of the Atlantic but also reinvigorated slavery, turned child labor into a necessity, and paved the way for the American Civil War. Perhaps at no other time in history has someone with a simple, well-meaning invention generated more general prosperity, personal disappointment, and inadvertent suffering than Eli Whitney with his gin." (from The Dressing Room)

And on the first time that someone successfully drilled for oil in 1859: "Although no one remotely appreciated it at the time, they had just changed the world completely and forever." (from The Fuse Box)

I listened to "At Home" on audiobook, but I was glad to also have a print copy available to flip through because the printed book contains numerous photos and drawings of things referenced in the text, such as the Stone Age structure of Skara Brae, the famous Crystal Palace in 1851, the Eiffel Tower under construction, and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home. There is also an impressive list of references for anyone who wants to do further research. 

This was the first time I've heard Bryson's voice. He is from my home state of Iowa (which has been humorously discussed in several of his books), but he has lived in England for so long that he's developed a charming accent. Bryson is a marvelous narrator and I hope to listen to his other books on audio, even ones I've read before.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a whimsical look at history.

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