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

19 Feb

It’s no secret that I love the hell out of Bill Bryson. When At Home was released last fall, I ran out and bought it (by running out, I mean looking it up on my Kindle browser, and clicking the Buy Now button, but that’s neither here nor there).

The Kindle edition itself is very good. I didn’t notice any errors in the text or strange formatting. I regret not owning a print copy, as the electronic versions of the book’s illustrations did not appear crisp and clear on the Kindle’s e-ink screen. I did have a brief mishap that resulted in me losing all of my notes, but Kindle customer service came through for me and helped me restore them.

At Home is a sprawling book in the tradition of A Short History of Nearly Everything. The premise is Bryson wandering from room to room in his Victorian home in England and expounding on how humans made the transition from simply surviving to being comfortable (focusing particularly on the birth of the modern age) for nineteen chapters. In Bryson’s words:

We are so used to having a lot of comfort in our lives—to being clean, warm, and well-fed—that we forget how recent most of that is. In fact, achieving these things took forever, and then they mostly came in a rush.

Comfort, as we learn, is a relatively modern word, and for good reason. Humans have only become comfortable recently, thanks to technology. Everyday tasks, like doing the laundry or washing the dishes, were dreaded all-day events meted out as punishment to wayward servants, instead of the no-brainers that they are today.

Bryson frames his history of comfort by devoting each chapter to a particular room, and using the room’s purpose as a launch pad for his meanderings through history. The chapter on Bryson’s Plum Room (he thinks it may have been anything from a Drawing Room to a Library), spans a broad scope of subject matter, including Palladian architecture and an expansive treatment of Jefferson’s plans for Monticello.

Part of why I probably lost all my notes and crashed my file is that at one point I was taking so many notes—there is so much to learn from Bryson. He covers nearly everything the layman should know about the evolution of private life—from ancient homes (and how they were devilishly difficult to enter and exit), the origin of the phrase “room and board” (literally involving a board), medieval cleanliness (or lack thereof), medical breakthroughs, and the inventions that made comfort possible (the light bulb, for instance). Comfort, as we learn over the course of At Home, was hard won. We’re able to enjoy comfort in our modern world because of (or perhaps despite) the countless wars and indignities suffered by our ancestors. But comfort, as Bryson warns, may be short lived. At the end of the book, he writes:

One of the things not visible from our rooftop is how much energy and other inputs we require now to provide us with the ease and convenience that we have all come to expect in our lives. It’s a lot—a shocking amount. Of the total energy produced on Earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in just the last twenty years. Disproportionately, it was consumed by us in the rich world; we are an exceedingly privileged fraction.

Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a Europeans, or every twenty-eight hours by an American. We are, in short, able to live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planets other citizens. One day . . . many of those six billion or so less well-off people are bound to demand to have what we have, and to get it as effortlessly as we got it, and that will require more resources than this planet can easily, or even conceivably, yield.

The greatest possible irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither. But that of course would be another book.

Although At Home is a relatively long book at over 400 pages, it’s easy to dip in and dip out of it without losing your place. Bryson is a gifted storyteller, bringing life to even the most mundane of facts and is at his best when shedding light on little-seen corners of history. Highly recommended for Bryson fans, history enthusiasts, or anyone who wants to amble through time with a chatty, knowledgeable companion. You may also want to read The World Without Us (Alan Weisman), a thought experiment about what would happen to the world that humans built if we all disappeared at once.

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Posted by on February 19, 2011 in Author: Bill Bryson, History


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