May 17

Book Review: At Home, A Short History of Private Life

At Home: A Short History of Private LifeAt Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

I have adored quite a few of Bill Bryson’s books, especially In a Sunburned Country and A Walk in the Woods, which I found both uproariously funny and full of fascinating anecdotes. I expected to like this one just as much, and got the audiobook, which tops 13 hours.

I’ve panned books by comedians before because their stand-up humor lost all its funny when read on a flat page. It surprised me to find that Bryson’s humor lost its edge when he spoke it aloud. He’s got an accent halfway between British and American, and in the version I heard, he sounded like he had a head cold. Neither of these should have impacted the humor, but I found this to be the least funny of all the books of his I’ve read.  I remember one funny line, in which he described an architect as having had the most influential impact upon London architecture of anyone in history “excepting the Luftwaffe.” That was the only funny part I remember.

This book talks about homes, but it veers quite far afield. The beginning talks about a great glass dome made for an exhibition, and what a revelation it was to have a building mostly glass and iron. Then he goes through his own house, an old rectory, room by room and talks about the room’s purpose, how the purpose has changed over the years, and about various tangential aspects of the room. For example, in the section about the dressing room, he talked about Oetzi, the cave man uncovered in the Alps by Austrian hikers, and then about spinning thread, flax, words derived from the processing of flax, Beau Brummel, wigs, moleskin eyebrow merkins and how strange it was that the dressing room in his house didn’t originally have a door connecting it to his bedroom.

On one hand, the tangents are part of what make a book like this really fun. I generally love that sort of thing, and have read a lot of books that meander all over from fascinating fact to fascinating fact. He says that the French used to call the act of being whipped an English affliction, because so many boys were whipped so ferociously in Victorian households that they picked up a taste for it as adult men. How did he get to that point? Um, oh yeah, the nursery. On the other hand, because I generally love fact-filled books like this and have been reading them for many years, Bryson tread over a lot of terrain I was already familiar with. So it kind of felt like a dance remix version of an album I already owned.

The other thing that detracted from my enjoyment of this was the excessive details he got into about architects. I get the feeling from reading this that 18th century architects knew as much about engineering as barbers knew about surgery–not a lot, but it didn’t stop them from practicing. Some of it was interesting, but all the names bogged me down. There were so many people influenced by so-and-so and taught under the camp of so-and-so that I kept frantically trying to remember them, then realizing that I would not in fact be tested on this material, and giving up.

So, in short, I liked this book, but not as much as his other books, and not as much as I would have liked it ten years ago. But I did learn that stairs are the second most common cause of accidental death, after the car. So hold those handrails, people.

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