When author Bill Bryson stumbles upon a secret door in the attic of his 18th century home that leads to a space so small as to be unusable, he laughs to himself about the eccentricities of Victorian craftsmanship. This momentary distraction, coupled with a nearby farmer’s discovery of a centuries-old Roman pendant on his property, gives Bryson something to marvel at:
“…the idea of a man in a toga, standing on what is now the edge of my land, patting himself all over and realizing with consternation that he has lost his treasured keepsake, which they lay in the soil for seventeen or eighteen centuries—through endless generations of human activity; through the comings and goings of Saxons, Vikings, and Normans; through the rise of the English language, the birth of the English nation, the development of continuous monarchy and all the rest—before finally being picked up by a late-twentieth-century farmer, presumably with a look of consternation of his own.” (p. 3)
History classes cover the big stuff: wars, famines, the rise and fall of nations — but what class discusses how, of all the spices in the world, salt and pepper made it onto the table; why men’s jackets have a pointless row of buttons on each sleeve; or why Shakespeare’s leaving his “second-best bed” to his wife in his will wasn’t actually an insult?
Bryson answers these questions and more as he takes a mind’s-eye tour of the house in At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
I’m going to need more coffee
I avoided this book for about a year, simply because I felt like I wouldn’t have the time to read it. Every time I mentioned this hesitation, bloggers and friends would urge me to pick it up, read some, and set it down again — in their words, it’s a good “coffee table book” that you can go through at your leisure while sipping your morning cuppa.
What people neglected to mention is that once I picked up At Home, it was impossible to set it down again. Little pieces of information from the various chapters make great party chit-chat (ie, “Did you know…”); but in its entirety, At Home is an insanely close analysis of history, architecture, technology, culture, fashion, and just about everything else.
I love books in which little details scattered in various chapters come together to form a complete picture. Information from one chapter (and a certain room) would build upon what I’d learned in a previous chapter (about a different room).
History at its finest and funniest
Despite what some (especially high school students) may say, history is anything but boring, especially when it’s told in such a way. The organization of each room’s history into a chapter turned what could have been a dull treatise into delicious, irresistible, bite-sized chunks.
I loved the whole book from cover to cover, but here’s a couple gems to whet your appetite:
“In the middle of the nineteenth century, London had just 218 acres of burial grounds. People were packed into them in densities almost beyond imagining. When the poet William Blake died in 1827, he was buried…on top of three others; later, four more were placed on top of him…St. Marylebone Parish Church packed an estimated one hundred bodies into a burial ground of just over an acre.” (p. 270)
“When [Thomas] Jefferson’s father died in 1757, he left a library of forty-two books, and that was regarded as pretty impressive. A library of four hundred books — the number that John Harvard left at his death — was considered so colossal that they named Harvard College after him. Over the course of his life, Harvard had acquired books at the rate of about twelve a year. Jefferson, over the course of his life, bought books at the rate of about twelve a month, accumulating a thousand every decade on average.” (p. 296)
“Most sewage went into cesspits, but these were commonly neglected, and the contents often seeped into neighboring water supplies. In the worst cases they overflowed. Samuel Pepys recorded one such occasion in his diary: ‘Going down into my cellar…I put my foot into a great heap of turds…by which I found that Mr. Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.’ ” (p. 356)
The last one is possibly my favorite; I can imagine the situation was gross and stressful, but I love Pepys’ description. I read it and couldn’t keep myself from laughing. Bryson himself injects a good amount of humor into the book — mostly snarky, which is my favorite.
The long and short of it
It was amazing to trace the journey of “the home” from the single large room of ancient times to what it is today, with all its permutations in between. At Home was fascinating and funny and wonderful, and I’m so sorry I waited so long to read it.