I can’t wait to tell you about this. There were so many points while I was reading when I just wanted to turn to the person next to me, be it the youngest of boys I’m teaching English, the German man across the aisle from me on the plane who drank two mini-bottles of red wine and a beer during our admittedly stressful flight or my mother sitting on the subway, and exclaim how much I loved Bill Bryson’s At Home.
I haven’t read enough Bill Bryson recently. After finishing his canon of travel writings, I didn’t begin working my way through his other books. I thought I wouldn’t be interested in the history of English and was intimidated by the length of some of his more “scientific” works. I didn’t have the hope I would be able to At Home on my kindle from the library, but then I checked and I could and I downloaded it.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life follows Bryson around his home in Yorkshire trying to figure out how homes evolved into their modern manifestations. Specifically, why English houses and American houses developed the way they did. He doesn’t go through each room so much to say that the couch was developed by xyz, but to give the history of how the room, or the actions that were performed in the room, was perceived in history and impacts our perceptions of that area today. The chapter on the dressing room briefly describes how the name and purpose came to be solidified, but spends much more time describing the outrageous wigs worn by the rich and famous in the eighteenth century.
While this approach could be dull in the words of someone less capable, Bryson manages to make even the most niche topics not only accessible, but interesting. This book is a history, yes, but it is narrated almost like a novel. Instead of a main character you have a house and instead of plots you have the progression through the rooms (the bedroom is so the climax…wait that doesn’t sound right, does it?). Yet, you are getting straight history here. This delicate balance is part of the reason why At Home is so completely enjoyable.
This book isn’t a quick read, but I managed to briskly work my way through it. I was eager to get to lectures early in order to have a few extra moments to read. I didn’t even get bored sitting on a plane for thirteen hours reading about the history of the house. Well, not as bored as I could have been. What’s so fascinating about the book, and the topic in general, is that it impacts everyone. There is not a single person who wouldn’t be able to find something relatable in the book. True, you may not have a nursery room, but you were a child with a childhood at one time. True, you may not have a dining room, but you’ve seen those long and grand dining rooms that Bryson is talking about.
Need a last minute gift? Pick up At Home for a friend and you’re sure to have a happy person on your hands come Christmas morning.
Do you have a favorite room in your house? Which one?