June 21, 2010


by Bill Bryson
536 pgs, Doubleday

Review by SF Winser

A little while ago, Bill Bryson, who had been best known for books on language and travel, released 'A Short History of Nearly Everything'. It was a wonderfully accessible science book, full of anecdotes and well-explained concepts that brought a level of charm to science-writing that was just delightful. It's a great primer for anyone after a potted history of science and a basic run down of scientific thought.

Bryson has attempted something similar with '
At Home'. This is more a social history of domestic life. Or at least, that's the aim. Bryson takes a wander through his own 1800's house and uses each room as a basis for a chapter. The chapter then focuses on a bit of social history (or many bits of history) that have either influenced the architecture of the room. Or made it an important type of room in historical settings. Or might be thematically linked to a concept relevant to domestic life that is lifted from the room (The chapter entitled 'The Nursery' is a meditation on the concept of childhood, for example, rather than a history of this particular nursery or of nurseries in general. The chapter on The Hall, however is heavy with facts about the architecture, development and even etymology of the hall in houses).

This is where 'At Home' starts to weaken – at the structural level. It seems like a nice binding theme, but in practice the execution is very vague. The theme doesn't really unify these historical tidbits at all. As it is, it's not completely a history of Bryson's house, it's not a complete history of domestic life, and it's not a complete history of houses in general. What we end up with is a jumble of historical stories, most of which are English, many are American and a large chunk are European. This is a history, sort of, of some sectors of Western domesticity and some of the factors that influenced them. Some social, some scientific and some political.

So it's mixed-up, not thorough and irrelevant in terms of half the population of the planet.

Gee it was a good read, though.

Bryson is always charming. He's usually pretty funny, too. 'At Home' has less of these elements than I would normally expect from a Bryson tome, but I kept plugging away through 500-odd pages of loosely collected stories with rarely an issue to complain about.

Bryson, one can tell, loves a good yarn. This book is an excuse to pull together a huge amount of disparate stories that have in one way or another, influenced the daily lives of millions of people, and tell them in a down-home, entertaining style. Part of me may worry that sometimes Bryson is too accepting of an official version, or too willing to construct a narrative around dramatic lines rather than stick to cold hard facts. Another part is wondering if, with a bit more work, the theme could have been tightened or some sort of overlying thesis might have been dragged out. Most of me, however, is just jogging along with the story of one-or-another forgotten genius, or marveling that some random act by some otherwise irrelevant person had flow-on effects to entire chunks of the population of the world. It's a lot of fun.

Bryson finds good stories and tells them well. There's not too much I can complain about there.

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