Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life

I think I’ve been driving everybody slightly nuts since I read Bill Bryson’s At Home, primarily because I can’t stop spewing facts – they’re coming out of me like a sponge pudding filled with too much custard. I am just in awe of how many details and anecdotes Bryson managed to weave into one book – the amount of research it must have taken to produce is incredible, but the way he connects everything together so seamlessly is, for me, even more impressive. It flows beautifully, and it makes me wish I had a photographic memory so I could retain the multitude of facts concealed in every page.

6854432b86d8a31093616e61f534309fIn essence, Bryson takes us on a tour of an old house in England, once a vicarage and now a family home. In every room we cover new ground, and seemingly ordinary objects begin to take on sudden significance. It’s kind of like the Dada movement to me – cover a teacup in fur and it becomes something more interesting. Except Bryson doesn’t cover the teacup with fur, he strips it down to words instead – to its genesis and consequential ramifications for human history.

Why do we use the word curfew? Why is a table square? Why did the aristocracy forego comfort in favour of external grandeur for so long? Why did Van Gogh see halos when he painted? Who actually invented the light bulb? How long did the Crystal Palace take to build? What effect did the Industrial Revolution have on human history? What did ‘childhood’ mean to the Victorians? How has ladies’ fashion evolved and how does this tie into society’s changing vision of women as a whole? Why did Darwin almost not publish his theory of revolution? Who perfected the art of brick making? Nothing is taken at face value – everything has a story, and all of these somehow connect. There were times when Bryson would lead with a tale that appeared tangential and I’d wonder how on earth he was going to bring it back to the room in question – but he always managed to do so charmingly, with immense wit and fluidity.
Doll House

I strongly urge you to read this book – after, all there is nothing more fascinating to humans than ourselves, and the history we often overlook is that that’s closest to home.

I am now on a Bryson binge, so if anyone has any suggestions for which of his books I should devour next, please send them my way!


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