Monday, September 13, 2010

Mini-Review: Bill Bryson's "At Home - A Short History of Private Life"

I love Bill Bryson's approach to making history accessible. Previously, I really enjoyed reading his "Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words." When I saw that he had written "At home - A Short History of Private Life," I jumped at the chance to read the book.

Bryson and his family live in a former rectory in the English countryside. The house was built in 1851 - a year when many interesting things were happening around the world. He walks the reader through each room in the house and the surrounding grounds and then talks about how we have come to live the way that we do in the 21st century. He even examines the concept of "house" as we have come to know it. As the excursion within his home causes him to consider such mundane items as staircases and windows, we learn much about the politics, economics, and social attitudes that have led to the development of the modern home.

Along the way, he opens his lens a bit wider to consider things like the great Exposition in London in 1851 that featured the Crystal Palace - an architectural breakthrough that eventually led to the modern greenhouse. The Eiffel Tower and Stonehenge make appearances, as do Jefferson's Monticello and Washington's Mount Vernon. I learned that Magellan and Vasco DaGama had a strong influence over what we prepare in our kitchens and serve in our dining rooms.

His discursive style also lends itself to examining the social relationships that have existed among those who have inhabited the home, worked as servants in the home, or have visited over the years.

Bryson clearly has a lot of enthusiastic fans. As I have been reading the book on the subway and in the office, many persons have stopped me to say: "Has Bill Bryson written a new book?"

Indeed he has. I recommended it enthusiastically.



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