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Monday, 23 April 2018

Review - Bill Bryson: At Home

Bill Bryson
At Home: a short history of private life (4*)

I sometimes think that a book, like a good marriage, should make you a better person. My problem with Bill Bryson’s books is that I’m not convinced they do.

That is not to say that At Home is not entertaining. Everything gets the familiar Bryson treatment, highlighting the strange, unusual and eccentric with the typical Bryson humour, but until the very last of its 483 pages I was left wondering why I had bothered.

The book adopts the floor plan of Bryson’s house at the time, a nineteenth century Norfolk rectory, to structure a collection of topics loosely based upon the history of private life in the home. In other words, he uses it as an excuse to write about almost any subject that takes his fancy.

Thus, the garden leads him to the subject of landscape design; the study allows him to talk about pests and mouse traps. There is a whole chapter on the fusebox which takes in candles, oil lamps and gas lights as well as electricity. The passage between rooms is associated with the telephone. On and on he goes through the kitchen, drawing room, dining room and so on, taking in ice, scurvy, the Eiffel Tower and a plethora of other matters, and that’s all before he goes upstairs.

It is impossible to predict where his attention will wander next. The chapter on The Bedroom, for example, quickly gets into the gruesome details of syphilis, which is fair enough I suppose, but from there it progresses on to other ghastly ways in which people expired in Victorian times, and then to a macabre account of burial and cremation. Only right at the end of the chapter does it clumsily get back on-topic by mentioning that cremation was legalized in Britain in 1902, just a few years before the original owner of the house died, but that the Reverend Marsham chose not to take that option.

The research is impressive: there is a 26-page select bibliography and a page-by-page online supplement to check facts or carry out further reading, almost like a Ph.D. thesis. Would it ever have found a publisher had it been by a new author and not Bill Bryson?

It’s a pleasurable enough read but normally you would only pick up a book about social history if you had a specific interest in the subject. It is indeed like a popular, easy-to-digest encyclopaedia: full of interesting and amusing stuff but you rarely come away with any great life-affirming emotion, insight or inspiration.

Near the beginning of At Home there is a photograph of Vere Gordon Childe who excavated the five-thousand year old village of Skara Brae in the Orkneys in 1927. He is standing beside one of the stone dwellings. In the text Bryson dwells upon Childe’s appearance, quoting contemporaries who described him as tall, ungainly, eccentric in dress with a curious and alarming persona and a face so ugly it was painful to look at. Actually, when I first saw the picture, my first impression was that it was of Bill Bryson himself.

Would I have said such a mean thing if the book had made me better person?

But then, relieved at reaching the very last page, I came across this reflection on how the home has evolved to give us lives of ease and convenience:
Of the total energy produced on earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in the last twenty years. Disproportionately it was consumed by us in the rich world ...
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 European, or every twenty-eight hours by an American. We ... live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet's other citizens. One day – and don’t expect it to be a distant day – many of those six billion or so less well off people are bound to demand what we have ... and that will require more resources than this planet can  easily, or even conceivably, yield.
The greatest possibly irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither.
Now that did make me stop and think.

I suspect it won’t be the last Bryson book I will read: Thunderbolt Kid looks promising.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.  

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