Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book 58: At Home

Before reading this book, I had read two others by Bill Bryson, which left me in the ambivalent camp.  I loved A Short History of Nearly Everything but really disliked Neither Here Nor There.  From what I've heard, that last one wasn't exactly characteristic of him, but it has still made me hesitant to pick up any more of his travel writing.  At Home, however, sounded like it would be more like A Short History and therefore, right up my alley.  Having now read this one, I'm in the pro-Bryson camp (not fanatically or anything) for now.
Bryson states in his foreword that the idea behind this book was to stick close to home after having researched the history of the whole planet/universe.  He also states that the project became much larger than he would have imagined, and as a result, his focus in this book is the home from 1850 onward.  Using his own home from that time period as a stepping stone, he explores the different rooms of the house, their contents, their history and uses.  In some ways, his approach was exactly what I was expecting, in others a bit less so.  I guess there really is only so much you can say about the bedroom itself ("historically, this is where people sleep"), so it makes sense that he broadens his topics.  For the most part, it works, although in one or two cases I thought he was reaching.  For example, using the basement to discuss the history of building materials I could go with - it is after all the foundation of the house.  Using the study to explore the animals and pests that live in the house because that's where he catches the most mice?  Um, ok.
He introduces quite a few different people that made contributions to the world with their inventions, and never received the proper recognition, and can thank Bryson if anyone remembers their names after this.  Since I spent a month in the UK over the summer, I especially enjoyed when he referred to some famous homes and their construction, such Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace.  I also enjoyed the background on the landscape artist Capability Brown whose work I kept running into and enjoying in the gardens and parks of many of these famous landmarks.  He also had a chapter that included a discussion of fashion, which was interesting and frightening and a bit of a call back to my 18th century literature class.  The history of the home becomes a global history in the hands of Bryson as he discusses how tea became popular (and how it started to be grown in India), how ice became a commodity, and several other little details that quickly affected events throughout the world.
It was a pleasurable read, and I learned a few things.  I generally take these types of general histories with a grain of salt, if only because I understand that Bryson can't complete super-detailed research on every single topic so there are going to be a few discrepancies or errors based on  his source material.  However, since I won't have time to pick up detailed reports or books about half the topics he addressed, it is an easy way to learn a little bit about a lot of topics, and if I want to learn more, I can use this book as a starting point.

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