“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ― C.S. Lewis
Owned and Unread Project
Monday, January 31, 2011
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
At Home: A Short History of Private Life is a bit hard to describe. Several years ago, Bryson and his family returned to England and purchased a home built in 1851, a former rectory. This got him thinking about everyday life. He used the template of his house as the template of the book -- it's divided into chapters named after every room in his house: "The Hallway," "The Kitchen," "The Scullery," and so on. Theoretically, each chapter is focused on that topic. However, if you've read Bill Bryson, you understand how his books are not always what they seem.
On the surface, this is a book about the history of houses and domestic life -- the things that everyone encounters in their daily life, the mundane, the ordinary. Why do we put salt and pepper on the table? What kind of toilets did people have 200 years ago? Why do we say 'make the bed'? And so on, et cetera. But this book is more than that. Bill Bryson digresses. He meanders. He makes lateral moves that somehow, eventually, circle back to the original topic. So, yes, this is a book about the history of the everyday, but it's so much more than that.
If you read this book, you'll learn an awful lot about the daily workings of Victorian life -- servants, food, childcare -- but you'll learn a lot of other little interesting factoids as well. Bryson manages to weave in the history of houses and the discovery of ancient British settlements that predate Stonehenge; Thomas Edison (and the fact that he technically didn't invent the lightbulb); Darwin's theories of evolution; Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Washington's Mount Vernon; and a lot more information about bedbugs and mites that I personally couldn't bear to read (sorry, I was too grossed out and skipped parts of that chapter).
I found this book both engrossing and overwhelming -- there were so many facts that mind was sometimes reeling, yet I didn't want to put the book down. I've been reading a lot of Victorian literature the past few years, and this book gives a lot of background that I found fascinating. It gave real insight into all the changes that took place in the 19th century -- it started out with candles and carriages and ended up with cars, electricity, and the theory of evolution. It must have been an amazing time to be alive.
If this sounds like a lot to absorb -- and there's 450 page of it, not including endnotes -- yes, it is, but Bryson makes it so fascinating, you won't want to put it down. I rarely purchase hardcover books, but I think I really need my own copy of this -- there is so much of it I want to refer back to again and again. And it's funny! I found myself laughing out loud several times, and quoting facts to my family. And it's extremely insightful. Here's one of my favorite paragraphs, from the chapter "The Nursery," in which Bryson discusses the childhood of both poor and wealth Victorians:
. . . . it would seem that Victorians didn't so much invent childhood as disinvent it. In fact, however, it was more complicated than that. By withholding affection to children when they were young, but also then endeavoring to control their behavior well into adulthood, Victorians were in the very odd position of simultaneously trying to suppress childhood and make it last forever. It is perhaps little wonder that the end of Victorianism almost exactly coincided with the invention of psychoanalysis.
So there you have it. If you're looking for something fascinating, fact-filled, and funny, I highly recommend this book. It's only January and I know this will be one of my favorite reads this year.
Labels: history, nonfiction
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I have to admit that Bill Bryson is one of those authors that I really just don't think I'll like. He seems too crude in his humor for me.ReplyDelete
Oh, I didn't find anything overtly crude in the book -- there's discussion about Victorian plumbing, various STDs, etc., but it's a minor part of the book. There's so much great stuff it's worth reading -- you can easily skim over any sections that are remotely icky.ReplyDelete
This does sound like a fascinating read! I'm not sure I would want all the detail about the practical workings of the Victorian home though. I think I might prefer to remain blissfully ignorant of how the Victorians maintained their selves and their homes so that I don't have to imagine those (probably uncomfortable) details when reading a book set in those times!ReplyDelete
It seems like everything old is new again--I've been reading about bedbugs because the city an hour away is awash with them, and it's only a matter of time before we sit in the wrong movie theater seat or pick a hotel that wasn't on the bedbug registry when we reserved it or something.ReplyDelete
I love Bill Bryson and the way he can make the most ordinary topics seem fascinating. I'll have to see if I can check this out - I also love reading about historical domestic details.ReplyDelete
And, Jeanne, eww! Sorry about the bedbug situation near you!
Motheretc -- it's not just Victorian times, even though that's a lot of it because his house was built in 1851. He goes back to Columbus, the early Britons, Romans, Colonial America -- it's all over the place relating to British history. The history goes forward as well up to the beginning of the 20th century. So much stuff!ReplyDelete
Jeanne -- I keep reading about this and it freaks me out! It's not just New York, it's a lot of cities. Nobody knows why, it's creepy.
Anbolyn -- I love Bryson too. Another great book about Victorian life is Fannie's Last Supper which was written by Christopher Kimball of Cooks Illustrated magazine. It's mostly focused on food but there's a lot of American history from that period.
The emphasis on the Victorians only makes me want to read it more!ReplyDelete
I've been on the library wait list for this one for probably three months now and I think it will three months more before I finally get it. I'm quite excited to read it though!ReplyDelete
Wasn't this fantastic!!?? I just loved it. And you're so right ... Bill Bryson could write about almost anything and keep you interested (and laughing). I found this so fascinating and know I'll probably read it again at some point.ReplyDelete
I was way more shocked to learn that Thomas Edison didn't invent the light bulb than that Columbus didn't discover America. Crazy.ReplyDelete
I just bought this book from Amazon using my Swagbucks. I love it so far. I've read many of his books. He's always good for lots of laughs. I listened to him reading The Thunderbolt Kid on audio. Funny stuff.ReplyDelete
i read bryson's book on shakespeare about a month ago and it reminded me of why i love him so much...your review makes me want to get this book, this second, but i better hold off till i get through some of the books i already have. great review!ReplyDelete
Read this one for book club and it was a great choice-- so much to talk about! One of our members even created a little trivia game about the contents. The winner won fudge (that seems to fit nicely with your blog title :))ReplyDelete
I think I'd love this! Bryson reads his own audiobooks, too... now to decide whether to read or listen.ReplyDelete
What a great review! I'm looking forward to reading this...or maybe listening. like JoAnn.ReplyDelete
I just love Bryson and it sounds like his latest doesn't disappoint. I'm going to post a link to your review on my nonfiction site. Thanks for posting! A great review. :)ReplyDelete