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Review: At Home by Bill Bryson

Review: At Home by Bill Bryson post image

Title: At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2010
Acquired: Bought

One Sentence Summary: Can you tell a history of life within the four walls of a country cottage?

One Sentence Review: At Home has plenty of Bryson’s characteristic sharp humor, but the topics covered by the book feel a little bit disconnected.

Why I Read It: This book was shortlisted for the Indie Lit Awards in nonfiction, and I am a judge for that panel. Opinions expressed in this review are my own, and don’t reflect the thoughts of the panel or reflect our ratings of the book.

Long Review: I haven’t been shy about expressing my dislike for Bill Bryson’s writing, at least in his travelogues, in the the past. But I have wanted to try some of his other nonfiction, working under the assumption that I like Bryson’s snark, just don’t find him a very interesting travel companion. At Home provided plenty of snark and many great anecdotes about life in the Victorian age which I enjoyed, but the organization of the book felt gimmicky to me.

In the introduction, Bryson explains the idea in writing the book this way:

I thought it might be interesting, for the length of a book, to consider the ordinary things in life, to notice them for once and treat them as if they were important, too. Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. … So I formed the idea to make a journey around it, to wander from room to room and consider how each has featured into the evolution of private life. The bathroom would be a history of hygiene, the kitchen of cooking, the bedroom of sex and death and sleeping, and so on. I would write a history of the world without leaving home.

Although he goes on to note that in the end the book was bigger than that — that whatever happens in the world inevitably makes its way into our homes — I fixated on those paragraphs and they formed my expectations for the book. I love nonfiction about common things, about the things we often ignore or miss or don’t think about, and so this book’s mission was right up my alley.

The problem I ended up having with the organization was that the book ended up reading more like a history of architecture than a history of objects, and that wasn’t quite what I wanted or expected. And the chapters meander in ways that worked as I was reading, but seemed odd when I went back and thought about it.

Take the chapter on The Bedroom, for instance. In 24 pages, it goes from the history of beds, to privacy in the bedroom, to Victorian sex and sexual arousal, to marriage and divorce, to female medical care, to pregnancy and birth, to medical treatments generally, to Victorian death statistics, to mourning, to fears of death, to graveyards, and finally to options for after death. They’re all tangentially related, but nonetheless meandering, and many of the chapters have this feel.

But you know what? I still had a lot of fun reading this book, even if it sounds like I actually didn’t. Bryson’s sense of humor works a lot better for me when Bryson isn’t actually in the story, and he makes the wide berth of topics both entertaining and informative. It’s fun to be snarky about the Victorians — much like it’s fun being snarky about the Puritans — as long as the snark comes from a place of affection. Bryson seems to genuinely find the people he mentions in the book amusing, and I appreciate that.

I’m happy to report that At Home was a good enough book to redeem Bryson for me. And I’m glad to have read it because it was smart, funny, and gave me a lot of quirky “Weren’t those Victorians something else?” type anecdotes to pass around at parties. Bryson fans should appreciate this book — if you don’t mind a meander — and others should find something in the story to enjoy.

Other Reviews: Fyrefly’s Book Blog | books i done readA Bookworm’s World | Life… With Books | Book Review Plus |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Fyrefly January 28, 2011, 8:00 am

    Thanks for the link!

    more like a history of architecture than a history of objects

    That wasn’t just you; I had the same problem with this book, and the disconnect between what I thought it had promised and what it actually delivered. Lots of good trivia, though!

    • Kim January 29, 2011, 8:46 am

      Fyrefly: I think I might have gotten that idea from reading your review — I knew something was off between premise and execution, but couldn’t quite articulate it until I saw that idea, which made a lot of sense to me.

      That said, so much fun trivia. I do love the wacky Victorians.

  • Jeanne January 28, 2011, 9:12 am

    Just the description of this one deepens my cabin fever!

    • Kim January 29, 2011, 8:47 am

      Jeanne: This is not really a book you’d want to read if you were feeling stuck inside, although he does talk about a surprising number of outside things for a book ostensibly about what’s in the home.

  • Trisha January 28, 2011, 9:30 am

    I’ve been toying with the idea of adding this one to the wish list, but I have a Bryson on the shelves I haven’t read yet and was thinking I should read that one first. Maybe I should rethink that.

    • Kim January 29, 2011, 8:48 am

      Trisha: I think it depends what you want. If the premise sounds interesting, then go with this one, but if the Bryson you already have sounds good then I’d go with that one. I’m not sure if that advice makes any sense!

  • Nicole January 28, 2011, 9:54 am

    I haven’t read any of his books but if I were to read any, this would probably be the one. The meandering in this might not bother me so much, since it seems to be anecdotal, making it easy to pick and choose among the topics and stories. I need some crazy Victorian people anecdotes.

    • Kim January 29, 2011, 8:49 am

      Nicole: It’s very anecdotal, so it’s pretty easy to slip in and out of it, although sometimes his jumps from one topic to another seemed a bit odd to me.

  • Jenny January 28, 2011, 9:22 pm

    I semi-wanted to read this one, but I’ve read a lot of reviews of it that said it lacked focus, and I haven’t loved any of Bill Bryson’s books enough (in spite of really, really, really wanting to!) to pick this one up yet.

    • Kim January 29, 2011, 8:50 am

      Jenny: I really, really want to like Bryson too, but all the books before this one were a dud. I just do not like his travel writing. I want to keep trying though — I may never learn my lesson — because lots of people have recommended A Walk in the Woods as being awesome. If you can get this one from the library, I’d give in a whirl. You’ll know within a couple of chapters if it’s going to be a book you want to read.

  • Sheila (Bookjourney) January 29, 2011, 9:30 am

    I haven’t read him… this one sounds interesting but I caution myself as I read your review and wonder if choppy, disconnected, and gimmicky will work for me… I tend to easily move on from books that do not flow as well… like most of us, we have so many others books hoping to be the next in line.

    Thanks for sharing about this one Kim! 🙂

    • Kim January 31, 2011, 5:50 pm

      Sheila: You know, the flow of the book is actually very good. As I was reading, I didn’t really notice the meandering. It wasn’t until I’d get to the end of a chapter where I’d look back to the beginning and think, “How the heck did I get here?!” So, don’t let those comments turn you off the book, you may actually not notice it like I did.

  • Gwen January 29, 2011, 2:07 pm

    This was my first Bryson book and I couldn’t get into it. It is still sitting there, staring at me from the shelf with a bookmark sticking out. For me, it was a couple of glaring factual errors that turned me off. (I have the ARC, so maybe I should buy the final one to see if the errors were corrected) The errors didn’t just turn me off, they pissed me off and made me not want to bother reading the rest. Why should I read a book filled with incorrect info? Not only incorrect, but so glaringly wrong that I know it is wrong without even needing to research it or look it up.

    • Kim January 31, 2011, 5:52 pm

      Gwen: Interesting! Do you remember what the errors were? I’m not familiar enough with a lot of this — or my memory of previous books is very poor — that I didn’t notice anything. But I agree with you; factual errors in nonfiction are frustrating and unacceptable.

  • Erin January 30, 2011, 1:46 pm

    Hmm, it sounds like Bryson sort of organized his chapters in a stream-of-consciousness style, like whatever topic he thought of after his current one is what got written.

    I do enjoy Bryson’s travelogues but haven’t read many of those or any of his other nonfiction. This one sounds interesting!

    • Kim January 31, 2011, 5:53 pm

      Erin: Yeah, I think stream-of-consciousness is a good way of thinking about it — like he just went to whatever interesting thing he though of next, sort of the way you can go down a rabbit hole clicking links on a site like Wikipedia.

  • Jenners January 30, 2011, 6:21 pm

    I agree with you … it was a bit meandering but I enjoyed it. He just tends to ramble along on whatever topic strikes him but what an enjoyable ramble it is. Glad this helped redeem Bryson for you!!! He is one of my favorites. If you liked this, you might enjoy Bryson’s MotherTongue: English and How It Got That Way. Fascinating and fun.

    • Kim January 31, 2011, 5:54 pm

      Jenners: You are correct, it’s definitely an enjoyable ramble once you get into it. I’m glad it redeemed Bryson too, I was getting bummed that I didn’t like anything I’d read. I have another one on my TBR shelf that I’m curious to read. I don’t think it’s Mother Tongue, but that one sounds good too!

  • Jennifer February 6, 2011, 9:21 pm

    I’m a meanderer myself so I feel like I might really enjoy this book as meanders from topic to topic. Plus, it covers subject matter that I sure have never really considered. And who couldn’t use interesting Victorian anecdotes to pull out at parties?

    • Kim February 7, 2011, 9:11 pm

      Jennifer: Yes, the Victorians are great for good stories. They were an odd group, and made some goofy choices 🙂

  • LifetimeReader February 28, 2011, 5:03 pm

    As a fan of both the Victorians and of Bryson (even his travelogues), I think I must bump this one up on my tbr list! Great review.

    • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:38 pm

      LifetimeReader: Yes, if you like both those things I bet you’d really enjoy the book!

  • Holly Van Houten March 11, 2011, 6:18 pm

    I have also reviewed this book. Thought you might like to take a look: http://www.bookreviewplus.com/2011/03/at-home-bill-bryson/

    • Kim March 13, 2011, 7:40 am

      Holly: Thanks for leaving the link — I’ll add it to the review.