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

From my BIBLIOPHILE page:

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Bill Bryson lives in an old parsonage house in England. The house’s many rooms provide the chapter titles for his meandering, yet fascinating exploration of the ways in which “houses are not refuges from history, they are where history ends up.” Bryson sat in his kitchen one day wondering why, of all the spices in the world, salt and pepper were on his dining table. It turned out blood-soaked histories had brought salt, pepper, and other spices to his and our tables. The chapters are often not what one would expect. “The Study” provides a study of mice and rats because checking the mousetraps is about the only activity Bryson conducts in that drafty parsonage room. “The Kitchen” provides a history of food adulteration and spoilage. “The Setting” is an account, among other things, of the immense numbers of dead on church grounds (20,000 in a small church by one estimate) accumulated over the nearly unimaginable expanse of time that has elapsed since the Roman period. “The Stairs” – the most dangerous part of his, and any two-story, house – is an account of household accident statistics. Being old, fit and divorced, for example, all increase your chances of not getting up from a fall.

At Home is also the story of personalities, often the rich, who could build to unprecedented specifications, and the talented, who could build the unprecedented, but were not always also in the former group.  Archaeologists – who in early days were often amateurs from that fascinating, leisured and inquisitive class of parsons in one of whose homes Bryson lives – found early dwellings they considered betrayals of civilization, as well as others stunningly modern. Architects (a relatively new occupation) were allowed to build houses whose footprints could be measured in acres rather than square feet. Landscape architects such as Fredrick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, redefined what was considered leisure, and in what settings it was taken. Furniture designers only slowly accomplished what we would consider comfort; how late this adjective came on the scene was a testament to the extent that pre-modern living was concerned with survival.

Bryson’s book is, finally, a history of England and, to a lesser extent, Anglo-America. That the English house became “The House” is the tale of colonialism, both political and cultural. Ideas like privacy, virtually unknown in the medieval world, spread around the globe in spaces like the “drawing room” – a name whose meaning was so distant from its original intent that no one would suspect it was for withdrawing. People would bring guests into their bedrooms and conduct “private” business in public as late as the eighteenth century. Even notions of space like “upstairs” only came into common parlance in the 19th century. The original second stories were essentially storage rooms in the rafters. They became the (private) place where all the action took place. So Bryson’s history of private life is as much a history of ideas as of lifestyle. And at tracing the etymologies of words, ideas and contexts, the author of Bryson’s Book of Troublesome Words excels.

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