Review of AT HOME: A SHORT HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE by BILL BRYSON
Known for writing compelling nonfiction, Bryson delivers again with eclectic content. While AT HOME focuses around our private space, taking us room by room, the topics explored are so variable as to make the theme seem somewhat arbitrary. The chapter on the dining room touches on everything from nutrition to a brief history of the salt and coffee trades. The chapter on the bedroom, which was often used as a sickroom, includes discussion of historical medical practices. In truth, AT HOME is a treasure trove of fascinating trivia convincingly sorted around the concept of “home.”
My favorite aspect of Bryson’s writing is its accessibility. That really makes or breaks a good nonfiction piece, as plenty of experts don’t know how to condense or organize their knowledge into something compelling and logical to a layman. Despite Bryson’s varied content, he leads us naturally from one topic to another. Reading this book feels a bit like sitting down for a cup of tea with a chatty friend (whom you’re happy to let go on and on, and do all the talking, because, boy, can they ever spin a yarn). The color photos also add to the book’s appeal, breaking up the chunks of text with relevant and interesting images.
AT HOME is a traveler of a book. In regaling his readers with the history of each room, Bryson takes us from Ancient Rome to the Victorian Era to modern day and at times theorizing into the future. In terms of geography, Bryson mostly bounces us across the pond between the United States and England. However, topic is where we see the most distance from one stop to another. In one book, Bryson weaves in mentions of: the Crystal Palace, Skara Brae, slavery, Mrs. Beeton, whaling, scurvy, the Eiffel Tower, patent politics, stair statistics, humorous chamber pots, mouches, and natural selection.
If you find that list hard to believe, you’re just going to have to read this book for yourself.