Monday, April 13, 2015

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

I can't describe the appeal of Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. At 523 pages (excluding his acknowledgements and index), it definitely spoke to the big book lover in me. In addition, the glossy red cover, large font title, and subtitle promises of fun facts to be had were just too much for me. Okay, so maybe that wasn't so hard to describe. I had to read it sooner than later.

And from the very beginning I was glad I chose sooner. At Home is set up to explore the details of civilization through the exploration of an old parsonage Bryson owns in Britain. The chapters are named for rooms in the house and while each chapter relates to the room it's named for, there are many other paths the information follows as well. Almost a third of the way in, after establishing the book's premise, Bryson defines the theme of this short history: "If you had to summarize it in a sentence, you could say that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly. Until the eighteenth century, the idea of having comfort at home was so unfamiliar that no word existed for the condition. Comfortable meant merely 'capable of being consoled.' Comfort was something you gave to the wounded or distressed" (160).

No such thing as the word comfort as we know it today? I knew there would be loads of fun trivia like this, but I never imagined how closely some of them would hit home (ha ha ha...that's a pun, but is it irony too?). The beginning chapters discussed the role of servants in homes of the nineteenth century. And who would be the man with the most detailed accounts of servants in his home? Thomas Carlyle. If the name doesn't ring a bell, take a look at the quote under my picture header for this blog. 


I originally found this quote on a poster I bought for my classroom and thought it absolutely fitting for a book blog. And here I find Thomas Carlyle, not really an altogether nice man or terrific writer as he wanted to be, but notable and in this wonderful book of trivia.




The next fun fact I happened upon involved Thomas Edison. He is my son's current historical crush, so to speak. Unlike me, my ten-year-old is enthralled with nonfiction, specifically historical figures, more so than fiction. He dressed up like Thomas Edison the week of Dr. Suess's birthday for character day...Edison being the chapter book biography he'd read the week before. However, what I learned of Edison would be a bit soul crushing to my son. Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb, per say, but basically receives credit because he did something much bigger in creating the system through which light bulbs lit houses and businesses. He was also smart enough to patent everything he did. This is all good, except for the fact that Edison was something of a jerk too. He stole and cheated his way through anything he had to, as long as it meant he made progress and reached his goals. Great role model.


Next close-to-home topic was that of Elisha Gray, Alexander Graham Bell, and the telephone. Both men submitted patents (of sorts) on the same day for like devices. There's much more to this story, but upon mentioning this book and its topics to my mom she randomly mentioned Elisha Gray, saying he is a cofounder of today's electrical company Graybar (founded in 1869) from which my mom worked her entire career and retired. Very cool discovery!

And if you could indulge me with just one more. I also came across mention of a Henry Bessemer, who found a way to mass produce and market steel in the mid-1800s. His discovery was life changing for architecture and construction. Bryson mentions that at least a dozen cities named themselves after him. I teach in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. There are a few towns that make up our school district, but the one I drive through every day is called Bessemer. It is very small, but has a concrete factory at its center, which lends itself to the type of work with which Henry Bessemer involved himself. I'm not positive the correlation is correct, but I've sent some inquiries to people and think it's a pretty sure thing.

All this to say, I thoroughly enjoyed Bryon's At Home. I truly discovered things about my home and life while reading. Not to mention the fun history of language phrases like why it's called being "in the limelight" and why British sailors are "Limeys." It doesn't get much better than this!

18 comments:

  1. I never got quite get Bryson, but understand the appeal of his books! He has some profound things to talk about that makes me think sometimes.

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    1. I think it depends on the topic for me. He always has lots of trivia, but I'm only interested on certain topics or places.

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  2. I have not read Bryson. May be should try one.
    www.sughambooks.blogspot.in

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    1. Besides this one, I really enjoyed In a Sunburned Country. It's about Australia and the country's history. Really good.

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  3. I've read and enjoyed a couple of his travel books, never picked up this one because it sounded a little boring to me. I wonder why I thought so, It actually sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review!

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    1. The nice thing about it is you can read it in sections over a period of time and not miss anything. He does go off path with the whole Home part, so maybe give it a try.

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  4. Boy, Jennine! You can find some gems to read, and I really liked the concept of Bryson's book, AT HOME. The review makes what would appear to be a rather dry read interesting. I was also scrolling down through your other blog entries and saw the stack of books for your Non-Fiction post, and that one by Mary Roach (STIFF) I almost got last year when I was writing that hair pulling project of mine. (haha) Anyway, I'm about to finish up THE SILENT SISTER (It was okay) and I can't wait to get into COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI by Ann Moody. It was originally pub'ed in 1968, and I imagine it was a real blockbuster of a book back then.

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    1. Thanks Donna! Have you read any other Roach? I've liked everything I've read of hers so far. I'm also fascinated by older publications and why they were popular in their time...and would they be/are they still popular today.

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  5. I'm so glad that you enjoyed this so much! I find Bryson's non-fiction style SO digestible. Who would have thought that a history of the rooms in a house would be so interesting?! But I'm not sure that it would have been under anyone else's pen. I think your review will go a long way to breaking down the presumption that this book is boring!

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    1. Thanks! I agree - I can't think of many authors at all that could make such a topic interesting as Bryson does.

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  6. I've wanted to read this book (as well as his others) ever since I heard a radio interview with Bryson years ago. I need to get on it!

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    1. Oh that sounds cool! Was he funny or amusing over the air?

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  7. Thanks for reviewing the new Bryson book. Love all the books of his that I have read. He always makes me laugh as I'm learning something. You've given me a book to look forward to reading.

    Don't tell your son till he grows up, but Edison's greediness is the reason the film industry moved to Hollywood, where the long arm of Edison's patent lawyers couldn't touch them. There used to be traces of the old film colony in Ft. Lee NJ, where I grew up, but I imagine they are gone now.

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    1. Wow - the things you learn! He is rather revered and held up to kids as a role model. I understand why, but I wish the brain side was specified. I don't like when people are glorified for things they aren't.

      Glad you enjoyed the review!

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  8. One of the fun things I remember from reading this book was all of the other books it tied into, from historical figures to objects to different themes over time. I love connections like that. Glad you enjoyed this one!

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    1. Yes, a book this is dangerous to the TBR!

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  9. Bill Bryson, like Mary Roach, is one of a surprisingly long list of awesome-sounding nonfiction authors whose books I haven't tried yet. This sounds like a fascinating microhistory and I love those, so I really should check it out.

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    1. Definitely - both of them are great! I've only read a couple Roach books, which I really enjoyed, and was told I hadn't even read her good ones yet!

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