Bill Bryson is the author of several best-selling books that describe humorously the places he has visited or lived. He has chronicled his travels along the Appalachian Trail, in small-town America and in Australia and Britain. And while all of his books are enjoyable, my current favorite is “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” (Doubleday, 2010).
The adjective “short” in the title is somewhat misleading – the book weighs in at 452 pages. Bryson’s residence in Norfolk, England, an old rectory, inspired “At Home” and prompted his musings on the history of homes in general. He tackles the topic of homes with great enthusiasm, with each chapter representing a room in his house – hall, kitchen, drawing room, attic and so forth.
While not every reader will revel in the historical minutiae in the book, everyone can find several anecdotes and facts that amuse and educate.
I particularly enjoyed the discussion about the famous Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. How I wish I could have seen this amazing structure, the first large building constructed primarily of glass, said to be “at once the world’s largest building and its lightest, most ethereal one.”
Despite regularly viewing re-creations of the life of England’s servants on programs such as “Downton Abbey,” it was touching to read portions of the diary of servant Hannah Cullwick, who recorded in detail the endless, mind-numbing list of chores she and her fellow servants performed in the mid- to late 1800s. Most of her entries ended with the sad comment “Slept in my dirt.”
I also enjoyed Bryson’s discussion of the discovery and examination of a prehistoric man, named Ötzi by scientists. Remarkably, this 5,000-year-old mummy was found not only with all his clothes, but also with a wide range of tools he carried with him.
Some book clubs may find the length of “At Home” daunting, but those that appreciate nonfiction and British history should particularly enjoy it. Another option would be to listen to the audio book; while it is 13 discs long, those who do a lot of driving would surely find it a compelling companion. And whether you read it or listen to it, you will never lack for cocktail party topics after consuming this book.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.