A new book by Bill Bryson is enough to elicit undue excitement from me; said excitement is relative, of course, and so given my…inscrutable…nature, undue excitement looks likes raised eyebrows or perhaps a smile. In any case, I was so overwrought with joy that Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life was coming out, his first real book since A Short History of Nearly Everything. You may imagine my disappointment that the book would not be published stateside until October 5th, and yet came out in late May in England. I cheated; I imported it.
Paradoxically, I typically find myself unable to say very much about Bryson’s books when I review them, perhaps because it’s easier to criticize than laud. Then, too, the very nature of Bryson’s writing and personality is understated and warmly avuncular; it is not life-changing, nor will it make you weep (though The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid did make me giggle uncontrollably for about ten minutes). However, Bryson has an indomitable way of making the most mundane things seem powerfully interesting.
Though he’s written a couple of smaller books in the interim, Bryon’s last major undertaking was A Short History of Nearly Everything, a massive undertaking which attempted to summarize the entire history of scientific achievement in the last five hundred years. In fairness to science, its history is quite interesting, most especially when one considers just how much early scientists tended to be crazy and/or prima donnas. By contrast, Bryson’s new book is about something both overlooked and admittedly mundane: the house, and all the stuff that’s in it, turning Bryson into something of a literal armchair historian.
My home is about 5 years old, made with aluminum siding; Bryson’s, by contract, has been around for several centuries, having been owned and rather well-documented by a Victorian parson. Most of the book deals with the Victorian era and after (as is Bryson’s apparent forte after his adventures in Science™), but he dutifully begins at the beginning with the unearthing of some of the earliest dwelling structures known to exist. There must have been a point at which humans crossed from makeshift dwellings into some sort of semi-permanent structures; these would have fulfilled the barest necessities of protection from the elements, and it would be a great many years before Man would come to think of his dwelling as anything more than a utility.
And yet, by the time we reach the dowdy days of Victorian England, people—rich people, anyway—have gotten very good at expending startling amounts of time and energy on their homes, remodeling them, decorating them, expanding them, and writing books about them. All of this excess energy, coming during an age of extraordinary discovery, invention, and mobility, creates a perfect auger for the sort of oddity and novelty upon which Bryson (and his readers) feeds. And so comes discoveries about paint (Victorian paint, since it was expensive, tended toward the embarrassingly gaudy), insane architects, bathrooms, couches and chairs, eating habits and diet, copulation, and everything which occurs between four sets of walls (and a little bit outside of it).
What is ultimately so fascinating about At Home, even compared to the masterpiece that is A Short History of Nearly Everything, is that while the latter covers scientific topics that were heretofore (and likely still remain) somewhat far-flung and abstract to us laymen, the former gives context and story to the things we use every day and which histories we take for granted. Take bras (short for the French brassieres), for instance, which were prototyped as early as 1863, as “breast puffs”, but which suddenly saw a surge of patented innovation in the century which followed. Has any modern reader ever wondered at what point it was that women began wearing these strange but apparently comfortable contraptions? I certainly haven’t, but that’s precisely the sort of useless-but-fascinating knowledge that Bryson will impart to you. And you may very well share his disappointment that bras were not, as is sometimes thought, the invention of an Otto Titzling; a similar disappointment follows the attribution of the toilet to Thomas Crapper (the name is a coincidence).
Bryson has what Leo Frankowski might call a “garbage pit mind”; it should therefore come as no surprise that while homes and rooms form a sort of frame narrative or motif, the stories eventually told within this context span decades and burst outside their frames and bounce around from topic to tangent like a frenetic photon. I won’t bother to list them; the joy in the book is reading them for yourself. I also take joy in Bryson’s own apparently genuine joy at all this knowledge; this vicarious pleasure must be akin to watching one’s child excitedly open a Christmas present, as the author’s fascination permeates his writing, and I think it is this very character which sets Bryson’s writing—including At Home—far and away above other books of this sort.