Thursday, November 20, 2014

REVIEW: At Home - A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Original Publication Year: 2010
Genre(s): Non-Fiction, History
Series: NA
Awards: None
Format: Audio
Narrated by: Bill Bryson

My rules for reading Bill Bryson:
1) Always listen to the audio.  Bill Bryson narrates his own books and he’s got a flair that is all his own.  His narration also breathes life into his ever-present humor.
2)   Don’t get too caught up in the strict subject matter or wonder what kind of outline Bryson is following.  This book in particular seems to have a lot of tangents that seem only tenuously linked to home life but it's charming and interesting so it's best to just let it roll.  You may find yourself wondering what the Age of Enlightened British Vicars has to do with the subject of the main hallway in the home but you’ll realize that you don’t care because you’re fascinated and charmed and please do go on Mr. Bryson.  So don’t sweat it.
3)  Prepare to be charmed AND informed at the same time.  There is a serious amount of research hidden under his casual, humorous style.  His evident enthusiasm for his topic will come pouring, in full force out the speakers/headphones (see rule #1).  The thing I don’t get is how does he know what to research with all the tangents and such.  Maybe he just knows everything?

Enough rules.  At Home is described as a history of home life and is (very) loosely structured by an examination of the rooms in the 19th century British Parsonage his family has just occupied.  In his own words this is what he wishes to accomplish:
“Now as I stood on the roof of my house, taking in this unexpected view, it struck me how rather glorious it was that in two thousand years of human activity the only thing that had stirred the notice of the outside world even briefly was the finding of a Roman phallic pendant. The rest was just centuries of people quietly going about their daily business - eating, sleeping, having sex, endeavoring to be amused- and it occurred to me, with the forcefulness of a thought experienced in 360 degrees, that that's really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things. Even Einstein will have spent large parts of his life thinking about his holidays or new hammock or how dainty was the ankle on the young lady alighting from the tram across the street. These are the sort of things that fill our life and thoughts, and yet we treat them as incidental and hardly worthy of serious consideration. I don't know how many hours of my school years were spent considering the Missouri Compromise or the War of the Roses, but it was vastly more than I was ever encouraged or allowed to give to the history of eating. sleeping, having sex and endeavoring to be amused.”

As he moves from room to room through the house he settles on topics that in some way elucidate our relationship with our shelters and how they have evolved. The topics he chooses to cover are various and wide and not always expected but they are undoubtedly interesting.  Included are short histories of agriculture, of fashion (and wiggery!), of the Eiffel Tour and architecture more generally, of rats and mice, of ice and of the birth of many of the innovations that made home life less taxing. You know, just a few little things.  I was never bored.

Final Verdict:  I find it hard to think that Uncle Bill (because that’s how I think of him, funny Uncle Bill) could ever be disappointing or less than entertaining.  I certainly didn’t need to think that here.  3 out of 5 stars.✪✪✪

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