Saturday, December 18, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 318 (12/18) -- At Home by Bill Bryson

There was a time when a book by Bill Bryson fell reliably into one of two categories: either he sat in his study and wrote about words, which he already knew well (The Mother Tongue, Made in America), or he set off to wander around somewhere interesting and learn new things (Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods). However, it appears that age is catching up with Bryson -- or the thought of research in that study now is more appealing than doing so in the far corners of the world -- since his last few books have required nothing more strenuous of him than pulling heavy reference works down from the shelf.

Of course, Bryson's travel books were always informed by his reading, as well, but there is something lost when research moves out of the real world and entirely into the library. And so one can hope that Bryson will not remain At Home for the remainder of his career, but will go back out on the road at some point -- in just the English-speaking world, he still hasn't covered South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, and Canada, not to mention vast swaths of the USA...and I'm sure that there's plenty of the UK that he didn't hit in Small Island, either.

But At Home is the kind of travel book where the furthest distance traveled is to the cellar, and the most strenuous activity is a climb up into the attic, which Bryson does in the introduction. (And discovers, in traditional quirky-old-English-house style, that his only-accessible-via-ladder attic has a door that leads out to a small patio on the roof, utterly invisible from ground level.) Bryson's stated objective is to write about the history of "private life" -- how people actually lived, in their homes, with their families -- but he really, as he mentions several times, falls into writing about how the 19th century (broadly defined, with plenty of wiggle room on both ends) transformed the way ordinary Britons and Americans lived, and the origins of the standard stuff that they pretty much all have in their homes.

And so the book wanders through the rooms of Bryson's current house, a former CoE rectory somewhere in quietest Norfolk, with each space (kitchen, dining room, halls, bedroom, bathroom, and so on) giving him reason to dig into the history of linens, or electric light, or glass, or brick, or servants. The early chapters do see him writing somewhat about medieval England, but the focus on his particular house (built in 1851) keeps dragging him back to the extended 19th century -- which, admittedly, was the source of a whole lot of changes to everyday life.

It's an entertaining ramble through social and technological history, with a decidedly populist bent and a mildly progressive outlook. (But it's hard to be anti-progressive when writing about the 1800s, at this point -- who alive now is in favor of eighteen-hour days at finger-crushing machinery for seven-year-olds? Well, other than Rand Paul, of course.) Other people have done almost exactly the same book before, and others will do it afterward -- there's a widely popular book about the ordinary lives of 19th century people at least every five years; I think the last biggie was What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew -- but that doesn't mean that this year's version isn't pleasant and entirely enjoyable. I do wish that Bryson would get out and wander around the way he used to, but I've noticed that I'm getting older, so I suspect the same thing may have been happening to him.

And this book was a solid bestseller before I managed to read it, so it's clear that no one will care what I say about it.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

1 comment:

Carl V. Anderson said...

We certainly didn't have the same experience with this one. I bought it the same day I heard Bryson read excerpts from it on NPR and tore through it in a matter of days, stopping several times to re-read sections aloud to my wife, who was as interested in it as I was. At the moment it is one of my favorite reads of 2010, if not *the* favorite. I learned so many fascinating facts about people I had never heard of. I felt like he did a great job of making history come alive. My only gripe at all was that I felt like, at times, he did not quite deliver on the concept of a room to room tour through the house. It was a small gripe, however, in what was an excellent overall experience for me.

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