At Home by Bill Bryson

April 28, 2011

Summary (from the publisher): Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has fig¬≠ured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.

Bill Bryson has one of the liveliest, most inquisitive minds on the planet, and he is a master at turning the seemingly isolated or mundane fact into an occasion for the most diverting exposi­tion imaginable. His wit and sheer prose fluency make At Home one of the most entertaining books ever written about private life.

Liked:

  • Bryson is one of my favorite authors, so I enjoyed this book as much for the writing style and wit as for the actual content.
  • It’s amazing that a book about the “History of Private Life” would be so interesting, but it was. I mean, seriously, who would even think of researching why blazers have three buttons on the sleeve or when wire covers were invented? Leave it to Bryson, I guess! There were a few slow spots, but on the whole, this was a book I couldn’t wait to pick up and continue before bed each night.
  • A lot of Bryson’s factoids were enticing enough to compel me to further investigation. Sure, it might have just been a quick look at Wikipedia or something, but still. Any book that makes me want to learn more about a subject is a decent one, IMO.

Disliked:

  • Despite Bryson’s best efforts, this book came off feeling quite a bit disjointed. I thought trying to write a history of private life by tying everything into the home was a highly original idea, but the execution fell short. In fact, it seems that Bryson himself gave up on trying to make legitimate connections, and by the end was barely mentioning the rooms he was talking about (such as the attic).
  • There was way too much information about architecture for my tastes. I guess it makes sense that a book about the home would talk at length about the various styles of homes over the years and point out some of the most stunning examples while telling a bit about the men who created the structures, but I think Bryson went overboard.

Rating:

I wouldn’t count At Home as Bryson’s best title, but it’s not the worst one I’ve read either. Some parts were very entertaining and the author’s writing style kept me turning the pages, but here I am just a couple of weeks after finishing it, and I barely remember the names of any of the people he talked about, any of the factoids he presented, etc. In other words, this is not something that is likely to stick with you for very long unless you love architecture. I give the book 3 stars out of 5.

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