You are here'At Home: A Short History of Private Life' by Bill Bryson

'At Home: A Short History of Private Life' by Bill Bryson


"At Home: A Short History of Private Life" begins on the roof of the Victorian rectory that Bill Bryson and his family occupy in flattest Eastern England. Surveying the surrounding countryside, the American-born author invokes a local archaeologist who once explained to him that the region's stone churches aren't sinking. No, they are slightly below ground because the sheer numbers of bodies buried around them over the centuries have caused the earth to rise.

Having imparted this grisly delicacy, Bryson retreats from his roof but not his house. The author best known in the U.S. for his travel writing uses home to anchor his new book; every room in it is a departure point to discuss how those generations of bodies once lived, how their homes functioned and, surprisingly only recently, began to provide a certain level of comfort.

Most of the chapters bear room names: "The Hall," "The Kitchen," "The Scullery and Larder," and so on until the floor plan is conquered, but it would be misleading to imply that this conceit confers order. This book is less residential walkabout than a curio shop crammed to the rafters with things that Bryson finds interesting. What from a lesser writer would be a trivia dump is here a treasure trove. He is an enchanting raconteur — if sometimes excitable.

The hallway is used to take us back to the configuration of the earliest human settlements. The kitchen brings to mind tales of food adulteration that made their way into literature ("I'll grind his bones to make my bread" from "Jack and the Beanstalk") but probably weren't true; it also lays the table for an explanation of food preservation and offers the perfect platform for a fresh look at Isabella Beeton, a British forebear of Martha Stewart who recommended cooking pasta for an hour and a half. The scullery chapter explains everything you need to know about the odious British class system and how American society came to differ so profoundly from that of Britain.

An exception to his strict use of rooms comes in "The Fuse Box," in which Bryson lets drop that one of Thomas Edison's associates electrocuted himself and that Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt went to a ball dressed as an electric light. Playful yes, but Bryson is also a deft historian, teaching us how entire cities were routinely annihilated by fire until electricity was marshaled.

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