Title: At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Author: Bill Bryson
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.
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!