Tumbling out amid a cascade ofparticulate fact, anecdote, and whimsy, comes the central truth of BillBryson’s latest cornucopian book: “Houses are where history ends up.”In At Home: A Short History of PrivateLife, Bryson moves through his ownhouse, a former English rectory built in 1851, showing how its every aspectreflects the erratically paced history of the material conditions of privatelife in the West.
The bookis divided into chapters bearing the names of the house’s rooms and spaces,though all serve chiefly as arenas for the author to unleash his prodigiouspowers of informative free association. It is Bryson’s genius, perhaps hiscompulsion, to suddenly hare off into the distance to retrieve unlikely connectionsbetween historical events and material progress. Take the dining room. This,Bryson tells us, came into being in the late 17th century with thedevelopments in the textile industry and the appearance of fancy fabrics which,in turn, gave rise to upholstered furniture and thus to “a simple desireon the part of the mistress of the house to save her lovely new upholsteredfurniture from greasy desecration.” But Bryson is scarcely in the dining roomdoor before he’s spotted salt and pepper shakers and whizzed off to thediscovery of the nutritional properties of minerals and vitamins. From therehe’s on to the spice trade, the age of exploration and its heroes, the spreadof disease, the tea trade, the sugar trade, the Boston Tea Party, theBritish-Chinese opium wars, more tea, and onward to the development of theEnfield rifle, the Sepoy Rebellion, and the demise of the East India Company. Finally,20 pages after his initial approach, he hauls up in the dining room again.
The whole book is like this, and yousimply have to surrender to it. And that, I am happy to say, is easy enough,for Bryson really is a virtuoso of deft sketches of the enormous, mostlyunintended, consequences of alterations in material life. In addition his witis as engaging as ever, and his appreciation of human foible and earnestnonsense—from Thomas Edison’s concrete piano to the mystery of fishknives—remains undimmed.
“The history of private life,” Bryson writes, “is ahistory of getting comfortable slowly.” Indeed, “comfortable,”as we understand the term is relatively recent, its first recorded appearancebeing in 1770—in other words, at the start of the Industrial Revolution. It wasthen that the English middle class began its ascent and expansion, its homesbecoming settings of gratification and ease. But, alas, enough is never enough,and Bryson, for all his exuberance and cheer, is obliged to end on an ominousnote, pointing out that “of the total energy produced on Earth since theIndustrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in the last twenty years.”How bleak the irony that if, as he notes, in our long pursuit of domesticcomfort and happiness, “we created a world that had neither.”
Katherine A. Powers, who lives in a pleasantly decayed apartment, writesa literary column for the Boston SundayGlobe.