Book Review! At Home by Bill Bryson
By Jessica Barton on April 4, 2011
Greetings nerds! Remember me? I know, I know. I’ve been missing in action from the fabulous Nerdist world lately, but fear not! I come bearing bookly offerings. BUT FIRST: I’ve been thinking about what talented nerds we have on this site and what amazing things you guys come up with, so I thought it was only fitting to see if you’ve written a book. What? That’s a logical step.
Before I dive into my review of At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, I wanted to extend the opportunity to you authors to send me some information, via the emails, about your book. (Don’t worry if you already have, you’re auto-included on my list!) If your wonderful work of literature looks relevant to nerd interests, or jaw droppingly awesome, or both, I’ll stick it and it’s (short) description in some kind of future “Awesome Authors Who Read This Site!” kind of post that is currently formulating in my skull. Be forewarned, I probably won’t include anything offensive or totally off base (for instance, the breastfeeding guide some publisher auto-sent me once upon a time? Not happenin’!) but we’re all open minded here. Bring it on! Great books can be hard to come by and often times overlooked by “major” publishers, so here’s your soapbox! Brag a little. To my email.
All right! Now, onto the aforementioned review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson.
I’m not gonna lie. Bill Bryson is one of my all time favorite authors, hands down. He’s witty, hilarious, quirky and basically just a fantastic writer. I think he has something along the lines of twenty (TWENTY!) books published, his most famous arguably being in the travel writing category and his most recent being history based, but he’s touched upon everything from science (in A Short History of Nearly Everything), to language (in The Mother Tongue) to Shakespeare’s biography and much, much more.
That said, if you’ve never read Bryson before, I would not recommend At Home being your first book. It’s not that I didn’t like it — to the contrary! I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I think that some of his famous humor and ability to make seemingly innocuous detail come to life are a bit lost in this work. Usually, I find myself absolutely unable to put down one of his books and while this was definitely an illuminating (by way of knowledge) type of read, it was extremely heavy handed in the details, but understandably so. It’s a strange paradox. Is it a paradox? Whatever.
Names, places, dates, stories — it’s a real history lesson here and, occasionally, I found myself scanning the pages in attempt to grasp the overall concept without actually reading it. For example, there’s an entire list of rectors and their parishes and what those men did with their lives in the church (or without it, it seems), like the Reverend Thomas Bayes coming up with Bayes’ Theorem or John Michell devising a method for weighing the Earth or the Reverend James Woodfore cataloguing his eating habits for most of his life, even noting what his meal was on the day his sister died. Trust me when I say there’s a lot more where that came from.
We begin our journey through the home by following the layout of Bryson’s own floor plan. We learn that “No room has fallen further in history than the hall,” and that bedrooms are a relatively recent invention in the grand history of domestic living. I thought a particularly interesting section was about the hearth and the way houses were built around them, and the trouble it seemed a great deal of people had in changing those tendencies.
More so than learning about the rooms themselves or even the furniture in these rooms, Bryson has pulled from history some amazing anecdotes about the people living it, the structures they built and how they relate to us today (well… usually). He evokes mental images of The Crystal Palace, constructed in Hyde Park in London in 1851, and answers questions that you may have never thought to ask. Luckily, he did. One of my favorites was, “Dressing, I wondered why all of my suit jackets have a row of pointless buttons on every sleeve.” Yes. WHY!
Ultimately, At Home is an entertaining and SUPER informative book, full of wonderful stories (you’ll learn so much more than you ever wanted to about whaling and why oil companies used to discard gasoline) and many, many interesting details. Some of these details and tangents are, arguably, a lot more interesting than others, but I think that’s part of Bill Bryson’s charm. Everybody will find something they like here.