At 512 pages, Bill Bryson's At Home is not really the "short history of private life" promised in the subtitle. After wrestling the 600+ pages of Heartstone, I was very happy I could read it on my Kindle.
At Home is not easy to classify. I would put it in the "Domestic History" category, if there is such a thing.
Bryson and his family live in a former Church of England rectory built in the 1800's. He takes each room in the house--from the cellar to the attic--as the prompt for a fascinating excursion into why and how that room was used and became part of the house.
It's an eclectic read as Bryson tackles topics as varied as prehistoric private lives, epidemiology (cholera, plague and santitation), the perils of fashion (toxic makeup, corsetry, wigs and heels), the growth of the British empire, the dangers inherent in staircases and old wallpapers and why it is that this rectory has come to be a private residence. And I've left out a lot!
"Houses aren't refuges from history. They are where history ends up," Bryson says and he makes a great case for his assertion.
At Home is chock full of interesting trivia and factoids. Here are just a few examples:
- The dining table was originally just a board that was hung on the wall when it wasn't needed. From this comes the expressions "room and board", the use of the term "boarders" for paying lodgers", and the evolution of the term "aboveboard"--keeping your hands visible on the board-- meaning honest.
- The expression "barking mad" comes from a symptom of grain poisoning (ergotism), a cough that sounded like a dog's bark.
- "Cabinet" originally meant the most private and exclusive chamber where the king met with his closest advisors. Over time it became a collective term for those advisors as well as a type of furniture.
- Thomas Jefferson invented the French fry. Hmm..wonder why he called it French? Bryson doesn't tell us.
Here's one of my favorite quips from the book: "These days the study is the final refuge of old furniture and pictures that one member of the marriage partnership admires and the other would happiily see on a bonfire." Reminds me of a certain rug in a certain study in a certain house!
At Home combines history, anthropology, epidemiology, engineering, architecture, etymology, and fun factoids in a lively and entertaining narrative, all those "olgys" notwithstanding. If you've never read a Bill Bryson book before, treat yourself!