Feature

Book of the week: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

Bryson takes readers on a tour of his home in rural England, offering a history of the objects in each room and the functions they serve in people’s lives.

(Knopf, 512 pages, $29)

“If Bill Bryson hadn’t already published a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything,” that title would have done fine for this one, said James Walton in the London Daily Telegraph. In At Home, the always-amusing American writer takes readers on a tour of his longtime home in rural England, contemplating each room’s contents and the functions they serve in people’s lives. We learn the origins of salt and pepper shakers, how dogs were domesticated, and why doors in old homes tend to be so small. But each minor subject unfolds into countless others. Discussing the light bulb, for instance, Bryson segues into histories of whaling, early oil drilling, and the London Blitz. Bryson’s premise eventually comes to seem like a thin excuse for shoehorning “more or less anything he considers interesting” into a single book. “Happily for us, there are few better judges of what’s interesting.”

“Even the most unpromising rooms” in Bryson’s abode “provide food for thought,” said The Economist. The hall, “now a neglected in-between room,” was in medieval times the primary place for meeting, eating, and even sleeping. Stairways remain the most dangerous places in a home, he reports, before seizing on the bathroom as his chance to write about “the vital subject of modern sewage.” It would be nice to say that Bryson weaves his diverse material into a coherent whole, but “in places the seams in this patchwork quilt are a little clumsy.” Despite taking us all over the house and several times around the world, At Home “doesn’t really go anywhere,” said Meghan Cox Gurdon in The Wall Street Journal. “There is no overarching argument, or point.”

The journey may be pointless, but “damn if it isn’t an awful lot of fun,” said Laura Miller in Salon.com. The best parts help us imagine what everyday life in the past was like, whether for a shivering medieval scholar striving to read by a feeble candle or for an 18th-century French aristocrat saddled with a vermin-infested wig. One reason Bryson’s such a good writer is that he’s an excellent reader, and knows how to “cherry-pick the choicest morsels” from his research. The hundreds of volumes he devoured to create this “grab bag of anecdotes and curiosities” are all listed in his bibliography, but you’ll never need to crack one. Bryson has done it for you.

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