Monday, February 28, 2011

This old house

I'm not going to talk about deep and abiding disappointment regarding last night's Academy Awards. We're not going to get into how Winter's Bone was completely and unjustifiably snubbed. I'm not going to mention how it vividly translates, via a surprising cast of relative unknowns, one of the finest pieces of Twenty-First Century American prose -- a haunting and vivid portrayal of unflagging courage and loyalty in a piece of unknown Americana that most of us would rightly be too afraid to experience for ourselves -- from page to screen.

Nope, I'm not going to talk about any of that.

Instead, I'm going to make a confession: I've been skipping ahead a bit in my reading list. I'm at the mercy of my public library; sometimes, books requested take months to get to me, and sometimes days. I was #23 for Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Doubleday, 2010) for weeks, and then all of a sudden it was on the hold shelf waiting for me. Worry not, dear reader, for I've got Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues (Villard, 1998) on my bedside table and will review that, along with some comparative and contrasting material, soon enough. But At Home is what I just finished, so At Home is what I'm going to briefly talk about.

I first heard of Bill Bryson through a friend who had read a few of his books, but they didn't interest me; though I'd made the pledge to myself to read more nonfiction, I had mostly stuck to memoirs about food and the people who prepare it, and Bryson's books all seemed to be travelogues. I later saw him on The Colbert Report, promoting At Home. It sounded a little interesting, like something you would continually mean to read, but never get around to. But then I saw it at the grocery store of all places, picked it up, thumbed through the pages, and decided that it was worth a go. I requested it from my library; eventually, it made its way to me.

The book is something of a surprise. Bryson, the most British of Americans, takes us on a tour of his house, a former rectory dating from the mid-Ninteenth Century, and through this tour explores the history and development of the everyday conveniences we take for granted, focused primarily on the past 250 years and almost exclusively on the Western Hemisphere. But if that sounds dreadfully tedious, let me hasten to assure you it's not.

If you're looking for a technical history, bogged down in the tiny facets of material evolution, look elsewhere. Bryson's history isn't very literal: his history of the fuse box, for example, isn't actually the history of that little gray box many of us have in our basements (my old apartment had it in the kitchen), but rather a more general history of home lighting. His history of the dining room isn't just the history of the dining room but the history of food. His history of the scullery is the history of servitude. His history of the cellar is the history of the building materials we use today and the reasons why we don't use others. His history of the bedroom is the history of sexual relations, and also of death and burial. There's the story of how sedentary civilizations appeared before organized agriculture (a phenomenon which has me convinced space aliens were somehow involved) and there's the story of the daring Brit who made my morning cup of tea viable.

At Home is jam-packed with the minor anecdotes and the epic sagas, humorous and terrible and salacious, surrounding the people who created, developed, fought over, stole, refined, perfected, manufactured, and marketed modern daily life. The story of things, it turns out, is really the story of humanity.

Bryson tends to ramble a bit, and sometimes strays a farther from the point than we might actually like before coming back to it. Nevertheless, it's usually a fascinating story, filled with some characters of whom you've heard and many others you haven't.

Actually, Bryson tends to ramble a lot; while occasionally irritating (you'll find yourself asking where he's going with this or how it relates to that), it's a part of his charm, the same charm that makes this book possible. Seriously. By a less accessible author, this book would be dry as dirt. I think that's part of why he wrote it, actually -- because the story of our homes is actually interesting, if presented in an interesting manner. Bryson's history isn't quite as deep or complete as a dry and dusty history text -- this is, as the subtitle notes, A Short History of Private Life (emphasis mine). At Home is more like a history novel.

So, if you're looking for pure facts, the book is full of them, but they're not laid out in a chronological manner, or even a logical manner. Instead, you'll have to let Bill get around to telling you what you want to know in his own course, for which you'll have to read the whole book. (For ease of reference, and for the extremely lazy and those pressed for time, there is a handy index in the back, along with a bibliography.) Luckily, due to Bryson's easy, friendly writing style, At Home is a surprisingly quick read, and consuming the whole thing is no hardship at all.

I give this book an A-. Take some time, enjoy yourself, and learn a thing or two along the way.


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