Saturday, 18 August 2012

At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Bill Bryson)

--The blurb--
"Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has fig­ured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture."

--The review--
Bill Bryson's amusing travelogues are known even to those who have never picked up one of his books. Focusing chiefly on his homeland of America, and his adopted homeland of Britain, several of his works have been adapted for television and there are even plans afoot for a film version of his 1998 work A Walk in the Woods. His prominence over almost twenty-five years, and ability to straddle the genres of travel, history, biography, memoir, language and science as almost nobody else does has assured his comfortable position as a household name. His latest opus, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which was published in 2010, continues in the author's tradition of trying to eagerly dash through as many topics as possible, in this case in an attempt to illustrate how it is what we do in our day-to-day lives, rather than what battles, monarchs and laws do, that in fact makes history. 

Always engaging, and only occasionally patronising, At Home is intriguingly structured around the layout of Bryson's home, a former refectory in Norfolk. Laying aside the fact that it is practically criminal to a book-lover to have a library and not use it (which Bryson cheerfully admits, which almost makes him seem ungrateful for the large and apparently beautiful home that he has at a time when many young people will probably never become homeowners, let alone have the luxury of a library for their delectation), Bryson more than compensates for this transgression through his compendium of fascinating and eminently quotable facts and stories. His chosen structure (linking the anecdotes with each room in his house) is successful for the most part, although perhaps inevitably - given the scope of the work - is stronger in some places than others. The stories connected with the attic and the cellar, for instance, appear to have little to do with these rooms - and this would have surely been an ideal opportunity to start on when British people started to drink wine and beer and perhaps keep it in their homes before taking it seriously as a hobby. Unfortunately, it's a chance that Bryson apparently missed - but in spite of this, it's a remarkable achievement to keep up the reader's interest in quite such a sustained way, given At Home's length.

While for the most part incredibly readable, the author does seem to have an aversion to semi-colons, which would make some of his longer sentences far easier to read if they had been included. It's difficult to say whether this is a deficiency on Bryson's own part, or just sloppy editing - although if he does have a specific vendetta against this humble punctuation mark then there's probably an explanation tucked away in one of his language books. 

One of the elements which does contribute to the book's readability - and this applies across much of Bryson's canon, as mentioned in my introduction - is the fact that he does focus in At Home, for the most part, on British and American history. This is understandable given his own background, and he does well to pull in stories from around the world at appropriate moments too. Ultimately, despite At Home's 'stab in the dark' approach, it is this unifying principle, as well as the book's mostly successful underlying premise (with an additional focus on the year of his home's construction - 1851), which adds structure, form, and a real conclusion to this history book. Far more interesting than other populist historians such as Stephen Clarke, Bryson remains accessible in the face of the depth of research undertaken and the sheer finesse involved in selecting information from more than 500 works and incorporating the most vital tidbits into a single book (although cynics may suspect that he has an army of willing interns/minions to assist him in this monumental task). For this, in spite of any errors he makes, his place in Britain's (and America's) literary canon, as well as his honorary doctorate from St Andrew's University, is well-deserved.

A full list of works by Bill Bryson can be found here.

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