Friday, December 3, 2010

Book Review: At Home by Bill Bryson



I am a huge fan of Mr. Bryson. However, after going through his entire oeuvre on a tear in the late '90s, I then had quite a gap. Last year I finally got around to reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, and so I lusted after At Home: A Short History of Private Life as soon as I heard about it (luckily, RH sent a box of ARCs to my work without me having to ask.)

And I am thrilled to report that Mr. Bryson delivers in this book! While he has had to stop travelling, having pretty much covered most of the Western world in his previous books, I was worried that he'd have trouble coming up with topics through which to fill me with random fascinating facts. No worries. He takes as his jumping off point his home: a rectory in rural England built in 1851 by a Mr. Marsham. And we go room by room through the building, learning about the development of living indoors, when and why furniture and other features of the home developed, along the way learning about the spice trade, the Eiffel tower, and Alexander Graham Bell. I'm sure for some, Mr. Bryson might venture a bit off-topic, but for me that's the fun. Here are some cool things I learned:
  • Females are more likely than men to fall down stairs, for the simple reason that we use them much more. The most dangerous is a single step in an unexpected place, closely followed by four stairs or less which inspires overconfidence (this is where my sister badly broke her foot 3 months ago.)
  • Early paints and wallpaper were very toxic. Sure, lead paint which I know you already thought of, but most of the colorings were poisonous, using arsenic, antimony, and other lovely things. While on the plus side rooms with these paints and wallpapers were often free of bedbugs, they also were slowly killing their occupants. So in 19th century novels when it is suggested that a sick person might need s change of air, that was usually correct and helped immensely.
  • King Louis XIII of France did not bathe until he was nearly 7 years old.
  • At least 14,000 Americans are attacked by rats every year. poisons are effective against rats because they cannot regurgitate.

One interesting note is that the book is obviously a joint US-UK production. It uses American punctuation and British spellings, which was the same agreement we used when I was an editor and we co-published with the Brits. I think Mr. Bryson was the perfect person to write this book because he is an American living in Britain. He can speak to both audiences with nearly equal ease, uses both currencies seamlessly, and can talk smoothly about both an English rectory and Monticello. At Home is a brilliant mix of humor and fun facts, covering the entire history of living indoors in the Western world.

7 comments:

Teacher/Learner said...

I'm planning to read A Short History of Nearly Everything next year. How could anyone not be intrigued by that title?! This sounds good as well. Thanks :)

Eva said...

Those facts you shared are definitely interesting; although, that last one about the rats made me shudder.

I'll have to get my hands on this one. :)

Christy said...

The fact about the wallpaper is very intriguing. I really liked Bryson's A Walk in The Woods. I have the audio book version of Notes from a Small Island checked out from the library now, and am looking forward to his mix of humor and interesting factoids.

Booksnyc said...

I love Bryson! Will look forward to this one.

I am curious - what is American punctuation? How does it differ from British?

christa @ mental foodie said...

I have heard of this author but haven't read any of his books. This sounds very interesting!

I didn't know about the "American punctuation and British spellings" guideline - good to know! Since I didn't live in the US until 6.5 years ago, I sometimes still spell/punctuate the English way...

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

I got this one on audio from the library and after listening to him on NPR, I knew I had to actually read the book. It just sounds fascinating!

Carin S. said...

@Booksnyc
Brits punctuate considerably differently than we do. The most noticeable bit is that they flip-flop their quotes. They use single quotes where we would use double, and vice versa. Also after titles only sometimes is there a period. If the last letter in the title is also the last letter in the word it replaces, then no period, but if the last letter in the title abbreviation isn't the last letter inthe word, then there is a period. So no period after Dr or Mrs but there is a period after Prof. or Sen. They also put punctuation outside of parenthesis that we put inside. I'm sure there are a lot more details, but those are the most noticable. The way this compromise came out (Brit spelling/American punctuation) was I'm sure largely influenced by complaints. Most people know about British spelling, so accept it. But as they don't know there even is a difference in punctuation, American publishing houses with books that have British punctuation get a lot of letters about "errors" that need correcting. They'd rather not deal with that. Hence, this compromise.