Title: "At Home: A Short History of Private Life"
Author: Bill Bryson
Publisher: Doubleday, 2010; 512 pages; $28.95
At 512 pages in hardcover, including indices, Bill Bryson’s "At Home: A Short History of Private Life," is anything but.
Given that "At Home" is more than 500 pages of joyful, intriguing exploration of the human experience, I suppose the fact that it’s not actually all that short can be forgiven.
The book’s subject matter is plucked selectively to both educate and entertain, reaching back to the Neolithic Era and even drawing from the personal experiences of Bryson’s own family.
I’m not sure exactly how Bryson manages to find — much less weave into a cohesive tale — such arcane and borderline bizarre facts and snippets as Thomas Jefferson’s invention of the French fry and the fact that the Mesoamericans invented the wheel but couldn’t figure out what to do with it except make children’s toys. But weave he does, with masterful storytelling and a simple premise.
Bryson points out early in "At Home" that humans have lived in recognizable home structures for only a tiny fraction of their existence on the planet. It occurred to him that it might be an interesting change of course to analyze human history through the lens of what happens every day inside our homes. Compared to wars and revolutions that take up far less of our time, household life hasn’t attracted much historical inquiry.
The organizing theme of "At Home" is the home — Bryson’s home, in particular, an old rectory in the British countryside. And through the lens of its entry hall, kitchen, bathroom, nursery, attic and even its cellar and garden, he explores the history of homes and the lives we live inside them — the "private" lives that are now fully one with our experience as humans (including those wars and Revolutions, by the way), but which he shows were absolutely not, in part, by telling us the stories of how they evolved to the status quo way we live.
In his own words, Bryson concludes that the history of household life isn’t just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it to be, but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that has ever happened. Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.
I don’t want to summarize "At Home," as I might do with a title on investing or mortgage decision-making. I want you to read it. This is one of those completely entertaining, energized and energizing bricks of a book that brings living color to historical personalities and their peculiarities (like the nobleman who went into massive debt as a result of a royal order to imprison Mary Queen of Scots at his country home).
"At Home" surfaces what is curious and compelling about cultural phenomena, from the preservation of food to the evolution in home heating with fire that made upper floors possible. Bryson transports you back in time to virtually experience events from the ‘golden age of gluttony’ to Britain’s Great Exposition in 1851 (at which, he suggests, Europe got its "first unsettling hint that those tobacco-chewing rustics across the water were quietly creating the next industrial colossus").
"At Home" is rich, narrative, entertaining and enlightening. It is learned and wide-ranging, while making no efforts or pretensions at being a "complete" history of anything, really. Reading it, for me, was like prepping for the TV game show "Jeopardy" — culling possible answers in dozens of categories while having a great time in the process. I suspect you will have one, too.
One tip: Read it with your iPad or laptop nearby — there are dozens of mentions in "At Home" so vivid you’ll scramble to Google them to learn or see more.