At Home: A Short History of Private Life

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

by Bill Bryson

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767919395
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/04/2011
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 66,642
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Bill Bryson’s bestselling books include A Walk in the Woods (now a major motion picture starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte), Notes from a Small Island, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, In a Sunburned Country, A Short History of Nearly Everything (which earned him the 2004 Aventis Prize), The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, At Home, and One Summer. He lives in England with his wife.

www.billbrysonbooks.com

Hometown:

Hanover, New Hampshire

Date of Birth:

1951

Place of Birth:

Des Moines, Iowa

Education:

B.A., Drake University, 1977

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER I

THE YEAR

I

In the autumn of 1850, in Hyde Park in London, there arose a most extraordinary structure: a giant iron-and-glass greenhouse covering nineteen acres of ground and containing within its airy vastness enough room for four St. Paul's Cathedrals. For the short time of its existence, it was the biggest building on Earth. Known formally as the Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, it was incontestably magnificent, but all the more so for being so sudden, so startlingly glassy, so gloriously and unexpectedly there. Douglas Jerrold, a columnist for the weekly magazine Punch, dubbed it the Crystal Palace, and the name stuck.

It had taken just five months to build. It was a miracle that it was built at all. Less than a year earlier it had not even existed as an idea. The exhibition for which it was conceived was the dream of a civil servant named Henry Cole, whose other principal claim to history's attention is as the inventor of the Christmas card (as a way of encouraging people to use the new penny post). In 1849, Cole visited the Paris Exhibition-a comparatively parochial affair, limited to French manufacturers-and became keen to try something similar in England, but grander. He persuaded many worthies, including Prince Albert, to get excited about the idea of a great exhibition, and on January 11, 1850, they held their first meeting with a view to opening on May 1 of the following year. This gave them slightly less than fifteen months to design and erect the largest building ever envisioned, attract and install tens of thousands of displays from every quarter of the globe, fit out restaurants and restrooms, employ staff, arrange insurance and police protection, print up handbills, and do a million other things, in a country that wasn't at all convinced it wanted such a costly and disruptive production in the first place. It was a patently unachievable ambition, and for the next several months they patently failed to achieve it. In an open competition, 245 designs for the exhibition hall were submitted. All were rejected as unworkable.

Facing disaster, the committee did what committees in desperate circumstances sometimes do: it commissioned another committee with a better title. The Building Committee of the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations consisted of four men-Matthew Digby Wyatt, Owen Jones, Charles Wild, and the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel-and a single instruction, to come up with a design worthy of the greatest exhibition in history, to begin in ten months, within a constrained and shrunken budget. Of the four committee members, only the youthful Wyatt was a trained architect, and he had not yet actually built anything; at this stage of his career he made his living as a writer. Wild was an engineer whose experience was almost exclusively with boats and bridges. Jones was an interior decorator. Only Brunel had experience with large-scale projects. He was indubitably a genius but an unnerving one, as it nearly always took epic infusions of time and cash to find a point of intersection between his soaring visions and an achievable reality.

The structure the four men came up with now was a thing of unhappy wonder. A vast, low, dark shed of a building, pregnant with gloom, with all the spirit and playfulness of an abattoir, it looked like something designed in a hurry by four people working separately. The cost could scarcely be calculated, but it was almost certainly unbuildable anyway. Construction would require thirty million bricks, and there was no guarantee that such a number could be acquired, much less laid, in time. The whole was to be capped off by Brunel's contribution: an iron dome two hundred feet across-a striking feature, without question, but rather an odd one on a one-story building. No one had ever built such a massive thing of iron before, and Brunel couldn't of course begin to tinker and hoist until there was a building beneath it-and all of this to be undertaken and completed in ten months, for a project intended to stand for less than half a year. Who would take it all down afterward and what would become of its mighty dome and millions of bricks were questions too uncomfortable to consider.

Into this unfolding crisis stepped the calm figure of Joseph Paxton, head gardener of Chatsworth House, principal seat of the Duke of Devonshire (but located in that peculiar English way in Derbyshire). Paxton was a wonder. Born into a poor farming family in Bedfordshire in 1803, he was sent out to work as an apprentice gardener at the age of fourteen; he so distinguished himself that within six years he was running an experimental arboretum at the new and prestigious Horticultural Society (soon to become the Royal Horticultural Society) in West London-a startlingly responsible job for someone who was really still just a boy. There one day he fell into conversation with the Duke of Devonshire, who owned neighboring Chiswick House and rather a lot of the rest of the British Isles-some two hundred thousand acres of productive countryside spread beneath seven great stately homes. The duke took an instant shine to Paxton, not so much, it appears, because Paxton showed any particular genius as because he spoke in a strong, clear voice. The duke was hard of hearing and appreciated clarity of speech. Impulsively, he invited Paxton to be head gardener at Chatsworth. Paxton accepted. He was twenty-two years old.

It was the most improbably wise move any aristocrat has ever made. Paxton leaped into the job with levels of energy and application that simply dazzled. He designed and installed the famous Emperor Fountain, which could send a jet of water 290 feet into the air-a feat of hydraulic engineering that has since been exceeded only once in Europe; built the largest rockery in the country; designed a new estate village; became the world's leading expert on the dahlia; won prizes for producing the country's finest melons, figs, peaches, and nectarines; and created an enormous tropical hothouse, known as the Great Stove, which covered an acre of ground and was so roomy within that Queen Victoria, on a visit in 1843, was able to tour it in a horse-drawn carriage. Through improved estate management, Paxton eliminated £1 million from the duke's debts. With the duke's blessing, he launched and ran two gardening magazines and a national daily newspaper, the Daily News, which was briefly edited by Charles Dickens. He wrote books on gardening, invested so wisely in the shares of railway companies that he was invited onto the boards of three of them, and at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, designed and built the world's first municipal park. This park so captivated the American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted that he modeled Central Park in New York on it. In 1849, the head botanist at Kew sent Paxton a rare and ailing lily, wondering if he could save it. Paxton designed a special hothouse and-you won't be surprised to hear-within three months had the lily flowering.

When he learned that the commissioners of the Great Exhibition were struggling to find a design for their hall, it occurred to him that something like his hothouses might work. While chairing a meeting of a committee of the Midland Railway, he doodled a rough design on a piece of blotting paper and had completed drawings ready for review in two weeks. The design actually broke all the competition rules. It was submitted after the closing date and, for all its glass and iron, it incorporated many combustible materials-acres of wooden flooring, for one thing-which were strictly forbidden. The architectural consultants pointed out, not unreasonably, that Paxton was not a trained architect and had never attempted anything on this scale before. But then, of course, no one had. For that reason, nobody could declare with complete confidence that the scheme would work. Many worried that the building would grow insupportably warm when filled with baking sunshine and jostling crowds. Others feared that the lofty glazing bars would expand in the summer's heat and that giant panes of glass would silently fall out and crash onto the throngs below. The profoundest worry was that the whole frail-looking edifice would simply blow away in a storm.

So the risks were considerable and keenly felt, yet after only a few days of fretful hesitation the commissioners approved Paxton's plan. Nothing-really, absolutely nothing-says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century's most daring and iconic building was entrusted to a gardener. Paxton's Crystal Palace required no bricks at all-indeed, no mortar, no cement, no foundations. It was just bolted together and sat on the ground like a tent. This was not merely an ingenious solution to a monumental challenge but also a radical departure from anything that had ever been tried before.

The central virtue of Paxton's airy palace was that it could be prefabricated from standard parts. At its heart was a single component- a cast-iron truss three feet wide and twenty-three feet, three inches long-which could be fitted together with matching trusses to make a frame on which to hang the building's glass-nearly a million square feet of it, or a third of all the glass normally produced in Britain in a year. A special mobile platform was designed that moved along the roof supports, enabling workmen to install eighteen thousand panes of glass a week-a rate of productivity that was, and is, a wonder of efficiency. To deal with the enormous amount of guttering required- some twenty miles in all-Paxton designed a machine, manned by a small team, that could attach two thousand feet of guttering a day-a quantity that would previously have represented a day's work for three hundred men. In every sense the project was a marvel.

Paxton was very lucky in his timing, for just at the moment of the Great Exhibition glass suddenly became available in a way it never had before. Glass had always been a tricky material. It was not particularly easy to make, and really hard to make well, which is why for so much of its history it was a luxury item. Happily, two recent technological breakthroughs had changed that. First, the French invented plate glass-so called because the molten glass was spread across tables known as plates. This allowed for the first time the creation of really large panes of glass, which made shop windows possible. Plate glass, however, had to be cooled for ten days after being rolled out, which meant that each table was unproductively occupied most of the time, and then each sheet required a lot of grinding and polishing. This naturally made it expensive. In 1838, a cheaper refinement was developed-sheet glass. This had most of the virtues of plate glass, but it cooled faster and needed less polishing, and so could be made much more cheaply. Suddenly glass of a good size could be produced economically in limitless volumes.

Allied with this was the timely abolition of two long-standing taxes: the window tax and glass tax (which, strictly speaking, was an excise duty). The window tax dated from 1696 and was sufficiently punishing that people really did avoid putting windows in buildings where they could. The bricked-up window openings that are such a feature of many period buildings in Britain today were once usually painted to look like windows. (It is sometimes rather a shame that they aren't still.) The tax, sorely resented as "a tax on air and light," meant that many servants and others of constrained means were condemned to live in airless rooms.

The second duty, introduced in 1746, was based not on the number of windows but on the weight of the glass within them, so glass was made thin and weak throughout the Georgian period, and window frames had to be compensatingly sturdy. The well-known bull's-eye panes also became a feature at this time. They are a consequence of the type of glassmaking that produced what was known as crown glass (so called because it is slightly convex, or crown-shaped). The bull's-eye marked the place on a sheet of glass where the blower's pontil-the blowing tool-had been attached. Because that part of the glass was flawed, it escaped the tax and so developed a certain appeal among the frugal. Bull's-eye panes became popular in cheap inns and businesses, and at the backs of private homes where quality was not an issue. The glass levy was abolished in 1845, just shy of its hundredth anniversary, and the abolition of the window tax followed, conveniently and fortuitously, in 1851. Just at the moment when Paxton wanted more glass than anyone ever had before, the price was reduced by more than half. This, along with the technological changes that independently boosted production, made the Crystal Palace possible.

The finished building was precisely 1,851 feet long (in celebration of the year), 408 feet across, and almost 110 feet high along its central spine-spacious enough to enclose a much admired avenue of elms that would otherwise have had to be felled. Because of its size, the structure required a lot of inputs-293,655 panes of glass, 33,000 iron trusses, and tens of thousands of feet of wooden flooring-yet thanks to Paxton's methods, the final cost came in at an exceedingly agreeable £80,000. From start to finish, the work took just under thirty-five weeks. St. Paul's Cathedral had taken thirty-five years.

Two miles away the new Houses of Parliament had been under construction for a decade and still weren't anywhere near complete. A writer for Punch suggested, only half in jest, that the government should commission Paxton to design a Crystal Parliament. A catchphrase arose for any problem that proved intractable: "Ask Paxton."

The Crystal Palace was at once the world's largest building and its lightest, most ethereal one. Today we are used to encountering glass in volume, but to someone living in 1851 the idea of strolling through cubic acres of airy light inside a building was dazzling-indeed, giddying. The arriving visitor's first sight of the Exhibition Hall from afar, glinting and transparent, is really beyond our imagining. It would have seemed as delicate and evanescent, as miraculously improbable, as a soap bubble. To anyone arriving at Hyde Park, the first sight of the Crystal Palace, floating above the trees, sparkling in sunshine, would have been a moment of knee-weakening splendor.

II

As the Crystal Palace rose in London, 110 miles to the northeast, beside an ancient country church under the spreading skies of Norfolk, a rather more modest edifice went up in 1851 in a village near the market town of Wymondham: a parsonage of a vague and rambling nature, beneath an irregular rooftop of barge-boarded gables and jaunty chimney stacks in a cautiously Gothic style-"a good-sized house, and comfortable enough in a steady, ugly, respectable way," as Margaret Oliphant, a hugely popular and prolific Victorian novelist, described the breed in her novel The Curate in Charge.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Delightful. . . . Bryson’s enthusiasm brightens any dull corner. . . . Hand over control and simply enjoy the ride.” –The New York Times Book Review

"An exuberant, shared social history. . . . Told with Bryson's habitual brio. . . . A personal compendium of fascinating facts, suggesting how the history of houses and domesticity has shaped our lives, language, and ideas." -The New York Review of Books

“A treasure trove. . . . Playful, yes, but Bryson is also a deft historian.” –Los Angeles Times

“If this book doesn’t supply you with five years’ worth of dinner conversation, you’re not paying attention.” –People

“Bryson is fascinated by everything, and his curiosity is infectious. . . . You can take this class in your pajamas—and, judging by the book’s laid-back, comfy tone, I have a sneaking suspicion that Bryson wrote much of it in his.” –New York Times Book Review
 
“The experience of reading a Bill Bryson book is something you don’t want to stop—a pip and a spree and, almost incidentally, a serious education. And never tiresome, for Bryson has the gift of being the student and not the tutor.” –Washington Post
 
“At Home is both insightful and entertaining, leaving a deeper appreciation of the stuff of home life that will never again be viewed as mundane.” –Seattle Times

“Readers who enjoyed Mr. Bryson’s apparently inexhaustible supply of nifty facts in such previous books as “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (2004) or “The Mother Tongue” (1991) will be happy to find the author’s pen as nimble and his narrative persona as genial as ever.” –Wall Street Journal
 
“Bryson serves up a rich banquet of utterly fascinating and sometimes horrifying facts of where and how people have slept, eaten, made a living, built homes and monuments, frolicked, traveled, given birth and been laid to rest.” –Bookreporter.com
 
“Its lasting impression is the author’s delightful, boundless curiosity. . . . The best nonfiction illuminates what we found impossible to see without it, and perhaps more so than any of his other wonderful books, At Home proves that Bryson writes some of the very best.” –"The AV Club," The Onion
 
“Bryson writes with his usual slyly sassy humor. . . . The result makes for reading that charms as it informs.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 

“Reading Bill Bryson is like having one of those friends around who’s always discovering something new—some pastime or place or piece of information—and can’t wait to breathlessly pass it along.” –Dallas Morning News
 
“Deliciously informative. . . . A treasure trove of facts in an engaging history of how we once lived.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“At Home is terrific. Bryson is a brilliant writer.” –The Charlotte Observer
 
“Bryson is the ultimate fact-filled uncle. . . . A delightful book filled with humor and astonishing facts.” –Vancouver Sun

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At Home 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 444 reviews.
DearReader More than 1 year ago
This book is signature Bill Bryson. If you don't like rambling, amusing tangents on interesting historical subjects -- well then, you're not a Bill Bryson fan. If you enjoyed the quasi-discursive but always entertaining style of "A Short History of Nearly Everything", you will enjoy this book too.
montanamommy More than 1 year ago
I think of Bill Bryson as a professor who is an amazing teacher. He seems to make anything interesting. If you enjoy the history channel and never want to stop learning this book is for you. It may not be as humorous as some of his previous books but it is loaded with tons of lost tidbits of information. I always wondered how we ended up with salt and pepper on the table and what the origin of a "cabinet" (as in a group of advisors/leaders. I loved to Google the different halls/mansions Bryson mentions in the book. I have many places I want to go if I ever get to England now. If you are interested and intrigued by the fact that only humans and Guinea Pigs cannot make their own Vitamin C then this book is for you.
MichaelaNH More than 1 year ago
This book is really for history fans, Jane Austen fans, people who love funny anecdotes (i.e. if you are amused by the little details, you will love this work). OFTEN, the little details pay off, and you get bizarre stories about life in the Victorian age or in the 17th century that you would never know reading books from that time. For instance: "Although paintings of (Queen) Anne always tactfully make her look no more than a little fleshy, like one of Ruben's plump beauties...(e)ventually Anne grew so stout that should could not go up and down stairs. A trapdoor had to be cut in the floor of her rooms at Windsor Castle through which she was lowered, jerkily and inelegantly, by means of pulleys and a hoist to the state rooms below." There is a wonderful part about Karl Marx's servants. Tons and tons of great stuff. I can highly recommend this book for the right reader!
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
“…centuries and centuries of people quietly going about their daily business -  eating, sleeping, having sex, endeavouring to be amused – ant it occurred to me….that that’s really what history is: masses of people doing ordinary things” At Home: a short history of private life is the fifteenth book by American author, Bill Bryson. With his uniquely individual style, Bryson takes the reader around his house, an 1851 Norfolk rectory, and he explores the history of activities that are (sometimes very loosely) associated with each room’s designation. Thus he touches on a vast array of topics and presents all sorts of noteworthy, sometimes surprising and occasionally hilarious facts.  At over six hundred pages of content, this is quite a brick, but is, as with many Bryson books, easy to read and thoroughly fascinating. Bryson has a talent for making the most ordinary, everyday subject interesting, and in this book he also explains the origin of many terms in common usage that we seldom think about, along with their meanings. Another excellent Bryson offering. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very informative and interesting book, but needed editing. He truely can "beat a subject to death!" When you finish the book you say that was worth the time as I really learned something. But, many many many times I skimmed through pages as he took a subject (like what people ate) and spent page after page listing different foods. The phrase "more than I need to know" often went through my mind. The book could easily have been a third shorter, just as informative, and a better read. Also, although I know it would have been costly, it needed pages of photos and illustrations to show objects or buildings that he spent pages discussing. However, it was well worth "plowing" through. Enough so, that I will purchsse other books by Bill Bryson.
92av656 More than 1 year ago
Not knowing what to expect from the title, this book turned out to be one of my favorite reads of the year! I have recommended reading this book to several people who have commented with the same enthusiasm!
moriancumr More than 1 year ago
Those who reviewed it and didn't find anything humorous may have lost their own sense of humor along the way. I found many chuckleworth tidbits, lots of good background, and useful information for history buffs. Yes, it rambles, but that is part of the interest, kind of like sitting down with Mr. Bryson and having a conversation.
NY_Reader1 More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson is a wonderful writer and can make just about any topic interesting. His newest book, however, stretches that ability. "drier than dirt" is the best way I can describe it. Still, it does have its interesting moments. If you're a fan, you'll want to read it. if you're not, you'll avoid it like history class.
Philip1112 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I really enjoyed this book which is mostly about English and American homes. Although populated with facts and insights 'At Home' still reads as enjoyably as any fiction novel. Anyone who has enjoyed the superb 'A Brief History of Nearly Everything' will also enjoy this. Because life was so difficult for so many people in this period you are made to realize how much living standards have changed for the better - at least in America and Europe.The year 1851 was mentioned throughout the book as a pivotal or central year in what Bryson identifies as a period of great change between the beginning and end of the nineteenth century. He does not confine the book to this period but ventures back to the earliest homes and into the twentieth century.The home is central to all human existence and activity and we are given vivid descriptions of the extremes from hovels to mansions and clear images into the lives of the destitute and rich that occupied them.The book is divided into 19 chapters. Three to nineteen are each concerned with different rooms or parts of the home - from cellar to attic. The exception is chapter 6, The Fuse Box, which is about electric lighting - no small improvement in home life. Although each chapter is primarily related to the chapter title, the author explores the topic in such a thorough that tangential areas are scrutinized also. For example, in the chapter 'The Hall', he talks about the early invaders of Britain, but then focuses on the homes these people lived in.As in 'A Brief History..' you get the feeling that Bryson wants to share all the information he possesses with the reader.Philip
cathymoore on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I loved this, I would have given it 6 stars if I was able! Having said that, I am a big Bryson fan. I can see how his rambling prose may not be to everyone's taste, although i would struggle to see how any reader could not be touched by his warmth, wit and fondness for the absurd. This book covers the history of the home and much more besides. Topics covered include architecture, the invention of the lightbulb, the introduction of anaesthesia in surgery and child labour and I found myself giggling away with Bryson all the while - on several occasions I was forced to discreetly cackle away into my scarf on a crowded commuter train, much to the bemusement of my fellow passengers!
lmonch on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Interesting history and antidotes!
iBeth on LibraryThing 10 months ago
An enjoyable ramble through the history of civilization, loosely organized around the rooms of the house. I especially liked the stories of influential people from the past (including a landscape architect who makes an appearance in The Rake's Progress).I always enjoy Bryson's writing, but an earlier book of his (The Mother Tongue) was so full of falsehoods that I just couldn't get past chapter one. I don't know as much about this topic, so if there were errors, they slipped right past me. :)
Davidgnp on LibraryThing 10 months ago
It's a while since Bill Bryson has written a travel book, but he certainly wanders far and wide with this one, though he never leaves his own house.The answer to this paradox is in the structure of the book. Bryson packages his short history of private life into a sort of rambling tour around the rooms of his home, a mid 19th Century former Church of England rectory in a Norfolk village. (This American writer has lived for many years in England.) He uses the function or former function of each room, or sometimes its contents, as his starting-point for a wide-ranging, leisurely and digressive examination of the way our domestic lives have been shaped by innovators of the past. Many of those had enough idiosyncracies and obsessions for our guide to spin humour from, in much the same way he does with characters he meets along the way in his travelogues. Here he is not taking us along the Appalachian Trail or for a walk in the woods, but across time and continents, drifting pleasurably, with occasional swoops and dives, so that we feel sometimes like the boy being taken for a magic ride by the Snowman, where walls are no barrier and there's no particular schedule to worry about.And that's the feel of the book - an engaging adventure, a fun exploration in the company of an amiable, cherubic narrator - if not the Snowman perhaps a jolly, anecdotal uncle. Don't look for structured history in Bryson's work, still less for philosophy, as some reviewers seem to have expected and been disappointed not to find - these are not Bryson's style. He's a dipper-in, a snapper-up of trifles, a jackdaw for twinkling facts.The only further gem it would be a delight to have seen revealed by the author as he guides us through his home would concern the daily detail of his own living there, and his family's, but he keeps that particular private life out of these pages, and we can't really blame him for that in these prying days. The tour through the house is anyway nothing more than a convenient device, and Bryson cheerfully drops it in several places when he can't map out a starting-point for what he wants to include precisely from the room we are in. The whole tour is so discursive that I get the feeling he could have taken us back to the beginning and started again with a whole different set of interesting things to say. I'd happily sign up for that tour too; Bill Bryson is very good company.
emigre on LibraryThing 10 months ago
"At Home" is full of anecdotes from history, Bryson offers readers a good read. The book's organized around each room, pulling stories from different eras, it tells you how each room has evolved through the years.
Mylady on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Boring. Couldn't stand the audio reader.
janglen on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I love the way Bill Bryson writes, and I love his fascination with the detail of ordinary life. This is a great read; I was sorry when I came to the end.
stanleykaye on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Excellent. A travel history of the home- or as usual almost everything domestic in the way that only Bill Bryson can do.
NellieMc on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Bill Bryson is one of our best authors and seems to find interesting things everywhere -- in this case in his house. Some of the chapters are a little more intriguing but all are fascinating and it's always worth the time to spend with him.
charlie68 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
A good book although there is a lot of digressions. I didnt too much about the house itself. I was reminded of the C and C Music Factory's song, Things that make you go mmm, while reading this book.
shelley436 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
At Home was an absorbing journey through the ¿home¿ as it has been defined by human civilization (focusing mainly on the Western world), presented in a readable but somewhat rambling manner. Bill Bryson uses his own house in an English town as a touchstone for his discussions of interesting aspects of human dwellings and the people that have lived in them and designed them. From lighting sources to building materials to local customs and practices to character sketches of whosoever caught the author¿s fancy through his research, the book jumps from topic to topic but in doing so, keeps the reader entertained.
Florinda on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I've occasionally reflected on the pace of change during the 20th century, but in this "short history of private life," Bill Bryson makes a convincing case that the magnitude of change may have been more striking during the 100 years preceding it. Domestic life as we know it today didn't really exist until pretty recent times, and Bryson explores its development via a room-by-room ramble through a 19th-century English country home - the former parsonage he lives in with his family. And "ramble" is the appropriate word, as it applies to the style of the book as well - there's really not much in the way of a strong narrative thread here, and that makes reviewing it rather challenging.Bryson's writing is highly descriptive and very conversational. I could easily imagine I was hearing it as narration for a documentary miniseries - and, by the way, I think it would make a very good one. It might actually be more effective in that format, come to think of it. It's full of interesting facts, figures, and individuals, with one digression after another. With a chapter devoted to each room of the house, the author does manage to bring his stories around and tie them back to whichever room he's talking about before he moves on the next - and that's helpful, because all the digressions made it difficult for me to remember which room we were in at times!The book falls a bit short of being "a history of the world without leaving home," as its focus is more narrow than that. Most of the discussion is focused on British history and society - as might be expected when one's vehicle is a particularly British country house - with a few side trips to America, continental Europe, India and China (countries whose histories are entwined with England's at one point or another), and is heavily concentrated on the years between 1600 and 1900. Bryson's attention isn't on the big events, but on how people lived - and how very differently they lived at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, since during the last couple of millennia, most people were at one end or the other. The evolution of domestic private life rather coincides with the establishment and growth of the middle class, and this is traced through new inventions, discoveries, and social practices. A few examples: * The dining room wasn't part of most houses until Victorian times, and is the site of discussions of etiquette and upholstery * The dressing room inspires talk about fabrics, fashions, and wigs * The nursery prompts consideration of how the concept of childhood has changed over time And here's something to keep in mind when you arrive at the "bathroom reading" portion of your house tour, tweeted from my own personal experience:"There are some things that should NOT be read during lunch. Descriptions of 19th century pre-indoor-plumbing London are on that list."This was my first exposure to Bill Bryson, and I intend to read more of his work. At Home is both entertaining and informative, and its lack of a strong narrative through-line makes it a book you can readily pick up and put down; I read it straight through, and I'm not sure that was the best approach. But however you approach it, it will fill your head with lots of new factoids to share with friends and family.
islandkeeper on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Find out how everything came about and when, from brick houses to bed mites to poisoned wallpaper to people making their own hair look like wigs if they couldn't afford them, childhood deaths ('fell into a tin of hot mash")--the whole kitchen sink (that's in here too. A good read you can pick up daily and not have to go back and re-read part. If there are any more books like this, I'd love to know!
dianemb on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I am a big Bill Bryson fan so was thrilled to get this book for Christmas. In this book, the author takes us on a tour of his home which was built in the 18th century for a British clergyman. As we enter each room of the house, we are regaled with all kinds of stories about other kitchens, bathrooms, etc. , as well as how these rooms developed over the last several hundred years. It was full of facts about historic characters and even gave some advice. For instance, always remember to put your toilet seat down , otherwise when you flush you will spew bacteria on everything within a few feet (eg. your toothbrush). I thought this was another success from Bryson, though not as humourous as some of his other books.
drbubbles on LibraryThing 10 months ago
A typical Bryson miscellany. The first chapter is excellent and then the rest are sort of wandering musings on things related to the emergence of modern household life, loosely organized according to the function of rooms in houses. Sadly, it's poorly cited and referenced, and I say that not because I doubt his research but because I often wanted to follow up on things he wrote but all too often he made reference to works not in the bibliography at the end (and without providing enough info to track it down on one's own), or didn't indicate which of the books in the bib might be relevant to a particular anecdote. In terms of what it is it's perfectly enjoyable but I'm glad I got it out of the library.
lycomayflower on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I've greatly enjoyed the other Brysons I've read, but this one was a bit of a disappointment. I suppose it would be fair to say that Bryson is never exactly tightly focused and on-point, but he seemed to wander away from his subjects in individual chapters and his overall premise in At Home a good deal more than what was entertaining. From the title, the chapter names (e.g. "The Kitchen," "The Dining Room," "The Study"), and the blurb, I expected a history of the home and homey things. At Home is partly that, but largely other things, too. In fact, I thought more than once that a better title might have been Homes: A (Not Short Enough) History of Building. I wanted candlesticks, and chamberpots, and bookcases, and shrimp forks, and while I got a good deal of that, I also got a lot I wasn't expecting (I know more now about bricks and stonework than I ever thought I could) and a lot I could have done without (Bryson seems to delight in cataloguing all of the horrible ways people have, might, and do die--especially if it involves things that creep, crawl, or scurry, and often for no greater reason than the squeaminess of it). While there were some sections that were particularly interesting, on the whole I wish the book had done more of what it looked like it would do (discuss the history of things, especially house-hold things we tend not to think about) rather than what Bryson (apparently) wanted to do (meander through history, telling the stories he found most interesting with little regard for how they fit into the organizational premise he'd set up).