At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Although I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s other book A Short History of Nearly Everything, I actually didn’t know that when I picked this book up. I had heard the other book as an audio book so I didn’t remember the author’s name. Also, it was nearly 10 years ago. My interest in Bryson’s book came from the media blitz he did to promote it – including NPR’s Fresh Air and, if I’m not mistaken, The Colbert Report. I put it on my TO READ list here on GoodReads and waited for a chance to read the book. That chance came when I flew to Florida for a family visit. However, now that I know it was written by him, it explains the style of the book.
Bryson goes from room to room to explain its history – you can read as much in the book’s description. However, Bryson just uses this as a diving board from which to dive into various aspects of our social lives throughout history. And he does dive quite deep. I often found myself wondering “what chapter am I in?” This wasn’t a bad thing because Bryson writes in a very entertaining and informative style. Here’s an example: the chapter on the bedroom branched off into a discussion about sex and childbirth. A chapter I can’t even remember was about germ theory and how the British came to realize that cholera came from dirty waters, not smelly misma. Another spoke of a caveman found encased in ice.
That brings me to one potential criticism of the book – the author focuses on England and the USA. There is mention of other parts of Europe here and there – especially when explaining how we ended up with certain words in English. (As a bit of a word nerd, I truly enjoyed learning where words like animal husbandry and cabinet came from) I understand that Bryson is using his British home as the framing device for our journey through history, but it would have been extremely interesting if we could have had a compare and contrast with how homes evolved in The pre-Columbian Americas or in Asia. It might not be his style, but I would LOVE to see a followup book that explored this concept.
In short, the book delivers on its promise and then some! You learn all about how the modern, Western home (post-Roman; it’d also be interesting to see pre-Roman) came to be and how this affected and was affected by what was going on in the world. I would heartily recommend it any history buffs. It’s a pretty quick read – approximately 8 hours and you’ll learn a lot of great historical tidbits.
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