I was disappointed with this task, not because of the book itself (At Home was a phenomenal read) but because it didn’t fit well into the category. For those of you familiar with Bill Bryson’s books you will know that A Walk in the Woods and Neither Here Nor There are hilarious autobiographical accounts of his adventures traveling in different parts of the world. Upon finding this book I was prepared for a history book instead of an account of his life, but I had assumed it was going to be just as humorous as my previous experiences with him. There were several parts where my wife heard me chuckle or burst into laughter, but they were not as frequent as I had expected.
At Home is a historical account of how the modern home we know and experience came to be. Using his own home in England as a guide, a retired country rectory, Bill Bryson takes us through each room and examines how the Middle Ages, the American Revolution, China, and Ancient Rome have impacted how our homes look and what we do in them today.
There is a great deal of wit, and if any of you have ever read anything by Malcolm Gladwell you will find that Bryson’s style carries some similarities. Largely the ability to strike off on a long and detailed tangent that takes us nowhere near the topic we think he’s discussing. Then when we truly consider the idea that the author himself has forgotten what he was talking about he brings us full circle and applies everything back into his central thesis.
For the most part I was enthralled by the information Bryson was bringing to the surface because it was all the things that no one takes any time to teach you in school, but has an unalterable affect on how you perceive a time period. For instance, the Middle Ages are a time, which authors, Hollywood, and just about everyone else has depicted in glorious light. Who can imagine a knight on horseback without imagining the way the sun glints off the armor, his sword raised valiantly as he charges into the armies of opposing forces or blood thirsty goblins? I still can’t, and that is largely due to my passion for fantasy. But when you take the time to actually learn about the time period (because let’s be honest, the education system does a pretty shoddy job of informing us what it was really like in any of these ancient and past civilizations) you will find that they were often quite different than you realize. For instance, though the Romans and Greeks bathed regularly and understood the benefits of being clean, those who took over after the Romans were defeated (most Europeans) considered bathing to be Satanic, or at least unhealthy, until the late 19th century. Even then it took some time for it to become a regular occurrence. Now imagine that same knight charging into battle. His armor is probably stained with grime and blood and the mere smell of him alone would have been enough to kill or incapacitate any modern day man or woman who happened to be within 30 feet of him. Who wants to read or watch that fantasy story?
Thankfully there were only a few chapters that caused my stomach to churn slightly (the bathroom was a given but the bedroom was a surprise). Throughout most of the book I was fascinated both with how things worked and what really happened in history to bring about the modern world we live in today. I can now say I understand in part the appeal of those who study history. When you delve deeply into the real history behind these changes, one experiences something similar to an adrenaline boost. I felt like most of the history I’ve learned was sugarcoated or tampered with and I had only received a brief glimpse of what was under the rug. Though it’s not always appealing to the senses, my desire to roll up my sleeves and dig through the past has grown significantly. The only other notable time this has occurred while reading a book was when I read The Great Little Madison by Jean Fritz. Another great book that those interested in the history of our country and our Founding Fathers would enjoy.
As I read At Home I realized that I knew so little about the home and the history of it that I didn’t even know what questions to ask. But Bill Bryson stepped in to not only ask the questions we didn’t know to ask, but to provide us with answers and insights that, as is quoted in a comment on the back, “if this book doesn’t supply you with five years’ worth of dinner conversation, you’re not paying attention.” I can add my voice to this; if you can read this book and not learn enough new things to have a descent historical conversation on the topic, then you may need to read it again.