Bill Bryson, a man of boundless curiosity, apparently enjoys ferreting out every detail about whatever catches his fancy. His early books recounted his travels, always with a humorous twist. His recent books are of a more serious tone, but full of the intense interest he brings to the material he has explored. Bryson is an American who has spent most of his adult life living in England.(During the eight year interlude he spent in New Hampshire, before moving his family back to the “Sceptered Isle”, he managed to write the bestseller A Walk in the Woods , about his experiences on the Appalachian Trail.) Now in staid middle age, he most enjoys puttering about his house and garden in Norfolk. At Home: A Short History of Private Life is loosely centered on his home, a former rectory built in 1851. As he walks the reader through the house, room by room, he ranges widely through the history of the everyday objects found therein. Sometimes Bryson seems to be wandering down rabbit trails, but he is able to bring the detours back home by chapter’s end. He is such an accomplished writer, he held my interest throughout.
The book is packed with all sorts of interesting detail, focusing on the mid-nineteenth century, but ranging far and wide throughout history to explain how homes evolved, and looking at objects found in a home and how they came to be there. While in the kitchen, he speaks of spices and of why salt and pepper achieved the place of honor on tables. He wonders why we say “room and board” and why a fork has four tines. When he looks at his fuse box, you will get an early history of illumination in the home, leading to how electricity developed. In the dining room, you will be told how different sorts of food came to appear on the table and how many servant s a Victorian home kept. In the cellar, he ponders different building materials, from timber to stone to brick. A tour of the study leads to a discourse on mice and rats and the development of traps to catch them. Entering the bedroom leads to explorations of marriage, sex and the role of women, with detours into illnesses and methods of surgery. The bathroom prompts information on the history of cleanliness and of how the toilet evolved. In the nursery we are treated to a history of childhood and in the dressing room, a history of clothing, including wigs. He wonders why jackets have several useless buttons at the cuff, and finds the answer. Bryson completes the tour in the attic with (unaccountably) a look at the history of taxation and at the theory of evolution. Phew! There is far more to the book than I have listed here. One reviewer said he thought Bryson was looking for an excuse to print every arresting bit of information upon which he may have stumbled. (His bibliography runs to twenty pages.) Perhaps so, but it does make interesting reading.
Early in the book, Bryson says the history of private life can be said to be a history of “getting comfortable slowly” (p.135). In the last pages, he points out the enormous changes that occurred during the nineteenth century, the great progress made in getting comfortable. He also notes that our life of comfort in the west consumes enormous amounts of energy. He says, “Of the total energy produced on earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in just the last twenty years” (p.451). This book is food for thought on so many levels and Bryson is an engaging companion with whom to share the meal.