At Home

Tumbling out amid a cascade of particulate fact, anecdote, and whimsy, comes the central truth of Bill Bryson's latest cornucopian book: "Houses are where history ends up." In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bryson moves through his own house, a former English rectory built in 1851, showing how its every aspect reflects the erratically paced history of the material conditions of private life in the West.


The book is divided into chapters bearing the names of the house's rooms and spaces, though all serve chiefly as arenas for the author to unleash his prodigious powers of informative free association. It is Bryson's genius, perhaps his compulsion, to suddenly hare off into the distance to retrieve unlikely connections between historical events and material progress. Take the dining room. This, Bryson tells us, came into being in the late 17th century with the developments in the textile industry and the appearance of fancy fabrics which, in turn, gave rise to upholstered furniture and thus to "a simple desire on the part of the mistress of the house to save her lovely new upholstered furniture from greasy desecration." But Bryson is scarcely in the dining room door before he's spotted salt and pepper shakers and whizzed off to the discovery of the nutritional properties of minerals and vitamins. From there he's on to the spice trade, the age of exploration and its heroes, the spread of disease, the tea trade, the sugar trade, the Boston Tea Party, the British-Chinese opium wars, more tea, and onward to the development of the Enfield rifle, the Sepoy Rebellion, and the demise of the East India Company. Finally, 20 pages after his initial approach, he hauls up in the dining room again.


The whole book is like this, and you simply have to surrender to it. And that, I am happy to say, is easy enough, for Bryson really is a virtuoso of deft sketches of the enormous, mostly unintended, consequences of alterations in material life. In addition his wit is as engaging as ever, and his appreciation of human foible and earnest nonsense—from Thomas Edison's concrete piano to the mystery of fish knives—remains undimmed.


"The history of private life," Bryson writes, "is a history of getting comfortable slowly." Indeed, "comfortable," as we understand the term is relatively recent, its first recorded appearance being in 1770—in other words, at the start of the Industrial Revolution. It was then that the English middle class began its ascent and expansion, its homes becoming settings of gratification and ease. But, alas, enough is never enough, and Bryson, for all his exuberance and cheer, is obliged to end on an ominous note, pointing out that "of the total energy produced on Earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in the last twenty years." How bleak the irony that if, as he notes, in our long pursuit of domestic comfort and happiness, "we created a world that had neither."

Katherine A. Powers, who lives in a pleasantly decayed apartment, writes a literary column for the Boston Sunday Globe.

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