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I must be honest and say that having lived in modern homes and in period properties, I have discovered I far prefer modern homes. My late husband used to call me a philistine for feeling this way, but having endured the joys of broken sash windows, dado rails which annoyed me and fireplaces which were less a feature and more of a hindrance to me placing a sideboard in a specific location in a room I am far happier with mod cons. Give me double glazing, cavity wall insulation, UPVC guttering and soffits and low ceilings any day of the week thank you very much.
However there is something which fascinates about the home and how we have come to live in a certain way. I often wonder what the street I live in looked like before the houses went up, and how we evolved from a people who generally lived in rural areas subsiding from the land to becoming far more urban in the way we live our lives. What made us move from using our hands to eat to using forks, knives and spoons? How did we evolve from sleeping on the floor to the comfort of the beds we sleep in today?
Bill Bryson, the American author, wondered that too one day as he went to check on a leak in the roof of his Norfolk rectory home. Upon investigating his attic he discovered what he calls "a secret door" leading to a small space on his rooftop which afforded Bryson a view over the county which he hadn't seen before. From this small discovery Bryson started to wonder about the history of more mundane things that we take for granted and this led to him to consider his house and how history has affected every room contained within.
In the end his slow leak resulted in a book which comes in at just over 600 pages and considers not just a history of private life, but also a history of how we came to live the way we do now.
In this hefty tome, Bryson begins with a floor plan of his house, along with what he knows of the origins of it. The rectory was originally built in 1851 for Thomas Marsham, a country parson who was well rewarded by the Anglican church for a role which didn't require much in the way of effort from him.
The house is a large one - and Bryson can only speculate on how a man who never married needed so much space. The plans printed in the book are based on the architect's original plans so rooms are given names not so commonly used today such as the Scullery or the Nursery. I could relate to this - my old house in Edinburgh had a cupboard which I was told when I came to sell was the "maid's room".
I have read a lot of Bill Bryson's books over the years and have always found them to be incredibly amusing but "At Home" isn't full of the belly laughs of some of his other works - this is a fairly serious history book but at the same time it can never be described as boring and there are some examples of Bryson's delightful use of humour too.
If you like history books which are well structured and focus purely on one person in one place then this isn't going to be a book for you. Bryson's structure is really rather lax and even the links to various rooms in his house - with the main rooms all having their own chapters - and the subject matter discussed is tenuous at times. So when you reach the chapter entitled "Attic" it might surprise you when Bryson talks at length about archaeology; or discusses building materials at length in the chapter entitled "Cellar".
Instead this is a meandering book which occasionally resembles a startling number of random thoughts which have somehow managed to come together in a fairly cohesive manner. Generally it works, but sometimes I found myself being reintroduced to some historical figure from several chapters back (and as such that could be at least a hundred pages previous) and having to refer to the index to remind myself of who the person was. I found Bryson's ability to link historical figures quite endearing - it seemed like a Bryson-esque version of "Six Degrees of Separation". It does, however, make it hard to find a "whole" for some life stories.
In the course of his book Bryson considers various topics such as the perception of privacy. I learned that going to the toilet was once something of a social event and certainly not the solitary and whispered about ablution of today. Similarly it was once unheard of to have a bath alone - although it should also be remembered that people rarely bathed in the past and Bryson does take the opportunity to repeat the famous quote about Queen Elizabeth I bathing once a month - whether she needed to or not.
Bryson clearly has an interest in architects and focuses on several in the course of the book - not just the architect who designed his home. He mentions many stately homes and how they came about - and how the owners came about the wealth they spent in building them. Bryson writes a particularly colourful section on James Wyatt, an architect who seems to have spent much of his time in a drunken stupor. Wyatt was responsible for Fonthill Abbey, a stately home built for William Beckford in Wiltshire. For all that Wyatt was something of a sot, Beckford wasn't such a slouch in the stakes for being a dissipate himself and despite his immense wealth he wasn't much respected due to several unwise dalliances with members of both sexes. It comes as no real surprise to learn that the story of Fonthill Abbey ends in tears but I shan't tell you why.
Bryson writes about many other subjects as he tours the house figuratively speaking, including syphilis in the "Bedroom" chapter. Apparently syphilis could lead to sufferers losing their noses and there was at one point in London a "No Nos'd Club". Sufferers were treated with mercury which led to one wag coining the phrase "A night with Venus and a lifetime with Mercury".
The bedroom chapter also focuses on several other medical treatments and a section on surgery in the days before the advent of anaesthetics is quite chilling to read. Bryson references the author Fanny Burney who in 1806 had to endure a mastectomy following a diagnosis of breast cancer. Her own calm recollection of the surgery - and the almost unbearable wait for the appointed hour of the operation to arrive - is terrifying yet somehow compelling to read.
Despite the loose structure of "At Home", Bryson has produced an enjoyable book which will educate and entertain. There are few laugh out loud moments in here however - the wit is dryer. This is probably a wise move on Bryson's part - because much of his book is based on a lot of serious research, borne out by a bibliography which runs to over 30 pages.
The main focus historically in the book is on Britain but Bryson does also touch on American life and when this is linked to Britain it makes sense - but some of the American links seem to have been included with one eye to the American book market as opposed to being a necessary addition. So while I did enjoy reading about Thomas Jefferson's quest to build his perfect home in Monticello I can't help but suspect Bryson included this more for the benefit of his fans across the pond.
This is a well written book and as ever Bryson's enthusiastic prose has charmed me to the point where I actually enjoyed reading about the perils of early brick making and other such mundane facts. Where he scores is his ability to make a reader think - and certainly his chapter called "The Fusebox" which considers lighting - or lack of - in the days before gas and electric lighting is particularly thought provoking. Most of us use candles these days to scent a room as opposed to lighting it but there was a time when even wax candles were a luxury few could afford.
The book ends upon these thought provoking lines with Bryson pondering on how much energy we use to have the home comforts we are used to today and asks the stark question of if this can continue or not, especially when developing countries are wanting the same comforts that we have.
"At Home" is an enjoyable wander through history and it's links to our homes. You will learn a lot from Bryson but be entertained too. That's the perfect kind of history book for me but if you prefer a more academic or polemic kind of history book then you probably won't enjoy it.
Not normally one to read history books, I was slightly taken aback to receive this substantial tome as a birthday present. Previous titles that I'd read by the same author, Bill Bryson, had all been entertaining travel and/or autobiographical works. This is somewhat different: witty, certainly, less straightforward to classify but, in my opinion, equally good value for money.
Subtitled 'a short history of private life', At Home is probably best described as a social history with a difference: compared with many historical works, the only dry thing about this is Bryson's wit. It's not quite 'Life, the universe and everything', but almost...
As the author moves from room to room through his own house, this serves as a framework for a wide ranging exploration of how so many familiar things came to be there, how ordinary (and many extraordinary) people lived their lives, and how we arrived where we are now, at home and abroad.
The approach may not be uniquely original but it works well here with the author's consistently light touch, linguistic and anecdotal styles. His insight into the development of language usage and terminology can be equally informative, for example the evolution of 'the hall', distinguishing 'larder' from 'pantry' etc. But it was largely the focus on everyday life and people through the ages that maintained my interest, along with insights into many well-known figures and movements from the past, insights new at least to me.
* 'While earnestly desiring the downfall of capitalism, Engels made himself rich and comfortable from all its benefits'
* 'Barnardo [...] never qualified as a doctor'
There are many, many more such nuggets. Still, just as with the likes of Wikipedia, best think critically and confirm with reference to other sources.
In practice, I tended to read this book in 'bite-sized chunks', perhaps one chapter (or room) at a time. It has been said that this is not a light read to be taken on holiday, and in a sense I'd agree with that. As a hardback, it actually weighs in at just over two pounds, or nearly one kilo. Maybe it's just meant to be read 'at home'! Alternatively, audio and e-book versions are also available, as is a paperback.
The sheer range of this work is beyond the scope of this brief review, but Bryson has clearly carried out extensive research, as evidenced by his lengthy bibliography and copious footnotes. The focus is mainly on Britain and, to a slightly lesser extent, Bryson's native United States - but this is more than enough to occupy us in one volume.
Some details have admittedly been questioned, which is hardly surprising given the sheer range and depth of coverage. Equally, some objects of Bryson's interest seemed to me more public than private. However, the real achievement, in my view, is presenting so much 'history' in such an accessible form: erudition finely balanced by wit. This is not meant to be a textbook; it's more inspirational - a starting point. Keen readers might be advised to follow the extensive references cited. Some indication of the range of topics inspired by Bryson's floorplan can be gained from the following brief list:
Social history / biography / cultural history / invention / architecture / engineering / civil engineering / science / domestic science / furniture / gardening / landscape gardening / public health / etymology
A most rewarding and entertaining read, perhaps best enjoyed 'at home'!
The hardcover version retails at £20 but discounted deals are available at around £12-£15. Paperback, e-book and audio versions are available for less. Check (e.g.) Amazon for full details.
At home: a short history of private life
Publisher: Doubleday (27 May 2010)
Finally, it occurs to me that 'At home' may have influenced several similarly themed TV series currently screening on BBC4 (Spring 2011 in the UK) - but that could just be happy coincidence.
[© SteveS001 2011. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites] ..
Having pretty much exhausted the possibilities available in travel writing, Bill Bryson has been turning his attentions towards popular works chronicling the growth of human knowledge. A Short History of Almost Everything, might have won lots of awards, but its ambitious scope and complex subject matter gave it a slightly ponderous feel that made it something of a chore to read.
Now Bryson is having another go with At Home, which charts the development of human habitation, considers why homes and houses have developed in the way they have, where ideas and customs come from and how societal attitudes to all manner of things have changed over the course of hundreds of years.
If this still sounds a little heavy, it's not. Bryson has learned the lesson of A Short History and the result is a much more enjoyable book. Certainly, in terms of size (almost 550 pages in the hardback edition) At Home remains a daunting proposition, but it never feels like a chore to read. It is a book you might want to read in chunks, in conjunction with something lighter, but the book easily lends itself to that approach to provide what is a fascinating read that will both entertain and subtly educate.
Bryson has organised the book in an interesting way. Taking his own home as the model, he effectively wanders from room to room charting the development of practices associated with that room. So, the bathroom becomes the study of human hygiene, the bedroom contains musings on changing attitudes towards sex and so on.
This provides a natural structure and instant hook which allows Bryson to cast his net far and wide, considering far more than just the physical history of why (say) a Drawing Room is so called. True, there are times when these connections are a little tenuous and you occasionally feel that Bryson is just squeezing things into certain chapters simply because they don't fit anywhere else. But so interesting are the nuggets which he uncovers that you can forgive this little foible.
One of the major reasons why At Home works better than A Short History is simply because the subject matter is instantly understandable to all. Bryson talking about things we are all intimately familiar with rather than incredibly complex scientific ideas.
Bryson's genius is that he brings everything down to the human and individual level. No matter what the subject, he will uncover some intriguing or amusing little anecdote or fact which clearly demonstrates how important/silly/dangerous certain ideas were. When trying to convey the impact of a particular invention, he looks at it from the viewpoint of ordinary people, pulling out of the archives a recorded example of its impact on one specific person. When trying to impress us with feats of engineering, he might well say that such-and-such a building took over 2 million bricks to build. But he will then make that figure meaningful by stating that this is the same number of bricks found in an average London street. This takes it from the meaningless to the meaningful and helps the reader understand some complex and interesting ideas.
The author also cleverly mixes his use of anecdotes. Some are humorous, designed to show how stupid people can be at times; others are impressive, demonstrating how the ingenuity of one person suddenly led to a massive leap in human knowledge; still others are simply strange or curious, but still help to demonstrate the central point in a meaningful way.
Bryson's innate curiosity shines through, and this spirit of inquiry transfers itself to the reader. We become fascinated by the details the author has unearthed and you will learn far more about the development of the home than you ever thought possible (or, indeed, desirable). Along the way, you will discover all sorts of interesting snippets which you can use to impress your friends. It's thanks to this balance of information and anecdote that At Home never feels like a chore to read.
It's clear that Bryson has done a massive amount of research for this book. He has consulted with experts far and wide and is always careful to give due credit for the information he is providing, which is a refreshing change. There's even an extensive bibliography at the end, as an aid to the reader who would like to find out more about some of the ideas contained in the book.
There are a few minor annoyances. There are a few times when the structure feels a little strained, as noted above. There are also a couple of occasions where the same facts or points are repeated in different chapters, which limits their interest or impact second time around. Still, these are minor grievances since they only occur occasionally and in a book of this size and scope, it's perhaps more surprising that they are not more common - again tribute the amount of research the author has conducted.
The main drawback really relates to the practicalities of reading the book! At a hefty 550 pages, it's not really suitable as a general reading book to take on the train or for your lunch break, as it's pretty heavy to have to lug around all day. Still, this is easily resolved: I kept mine by the bedside and read a chapter a night, which meant the book remained fresh and interesting without ever becoming too heavy (literally and figuratively).
You could also argue that there is a Western bias towards the book as it rarely ventures outside the US or Europe for its ideas or examples. Still, given its already prodigious size, that's perhaps just as well and for all I know, Bryson might already be working on volume 2 to look at developments elsewhere in the world!.
At Home is a fantastic popular work which will educate as well as entertain. Superbly written with a great attention to detail combined with enough examples and anecdotes to break big ideas down into meaningful chunks, it's a fascinating read. Far more accessible and readable than A Short History of Almost Everything, you'll never look at your own home in quite the same way ever again!
© Copyright SWSt 2010