Sunday, January 30, 2011
The title: At Home: A Short History of Private Life
The author: Bill Bryson
Publication: Random House, 2010
Got it from: The libarary
I was so lucky last fall when my two favourite non-fiction writers published great big books on fascinating subjects.* Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life is similar to his amazing A Short History of Nearly Everything, except that it deals with minutiae instead of larger things. It's timely too, as my husband and I have recently purchased our own Victorian-era home. And because it's Bryson, it's fascinating.
Homes, he explains, are not where people go as refuge from history, it's where history ends up. Everything large and small that we take for granted about our homes once had to be thought of by somebody and refined many times. Taking as an example his own house, an 1851 English rectory, he guides us through each room and its history and evolution, including the objects within. The journey sometimes takes us around the world (for example, when describing how the spice trade ends in our spice drawer) but more often than not what we are familiar with in Britain and North America originated in Victorian England.
Don't expect this book to be linear in any way - following Bryson's stories is a bit like running around a maze, but who cares when the hedges are so fascinating? Being obsessed with 19th century history, I already knew a lot of this stuff, but I was particularly fascinated with his description of the evolution of houses from simple buildings with just one room to the complex stately homes of the modern era. One particularly interesting fact is that second stories were only made possible with the invention of fireplaces (as opposed to open hearths) in the middle ages.
A few recurring themes seem to run throughout this book. The first is that we can't imagine how comfortable houses were before the turn of the 20th century, but then again life in general was pretty uncomfortable. The other is that nothing about houses as we know them is by chance. He cites several examples of architecturally-mad individuals who designed houses that would be considered crazy by any standards. A prime example of this is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's DIY project for something like fifty years, which contained countless oddities, including a dumbwaiter in a fireplace and a set of doors where one opened when the other did. And don't even get me started on Biltmore. It had its own village. Its own village.
This is one of those books that is both enjoyable to read and a reference to return to for years. I can't think of any book I've read in the past few years that more deserves to be elevated to non-fiction classic than At Home.
*More on Simon Winchester's Atlantic later this year.