Review: At Home

One of the great joys of reading Bill Bryson’s travel writing is joining him on his side trips, literary and physical.  Bryson writes like a guy who likes to learn and share facts about our world from the profound to the obscure, and will take off on a side trip with the slightest encouragement.  I generally find this to be one of his great assets.

The premise of his At Home: A Short History of Private Life is that he will take his readers on a tour of the old English rectory he lives in and explain how it came to be what it is.  He will then connect its history to the larger trends in the development of private life in the West. The tour will go room by room from the entryway to the attic. This seems to be a great set up for Bryson to spin many informative and interesting yarns.

Generally he does not disappoint.  He touches on everything from the development of architecture in England, Europe, and America, to the lives of servants, to why we have the spices on the table that we do.  Because he’s Bill Bryson, this information is swaddled in clear, diverting language with a wry humor that keeps it all in perspective.

Despite all this, I found myself looking at the number of pages remaining much more often than I usually do in a Bryson book.  I think that the structure is a little too loose here.  There’s almost nothing that can’t be tied to a room in the house somehow, and Bryson takes advantage of that to range widely on topics from the London sewers and the germ theory of disease to the anatomical rearrangements caused by corsets or the once fashionable practice of having wigs made from one’s healthy hair.  All these topics are diverting, but it is remarkably easy to lose track of the big picture when the picture is as big as Bryson makes it.

While that rattling narrative makes for a wandering read, it also makes it easy to pick the book up for a few pages, soak up Bryson’s description of whatever fascinating corner of Western civilization he’s decided is fair game, and set it back down for later.  The loose structure makes for a rambling book, not an unreadable one.  And it is an enjoyable and educational one as well.

Recommended, though the pace may be different than one expects.

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