At Home, by Bill Bryson

At Home
At Home

Home is the place we feel utterly comfortable. Things are arranged the way we like. The place smells right. When I come home from a long trip, I can feel my shoulders come down from around my ears and everything relaxes. We like to think of ourselves as the masters of our home, but there is a surprising amount of history and culture that goes into the way we set up our homes. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson looks into almost every topic one could image as it relates to our homes and private lives. He discovers why most forks have four tines and not six, why we say we make our beds and not set them (or some other verb), why rooms have the names they do, and myriad other oddities. I was completely hooked.

Bryson lives in an old rectory that was completed in 1851. Bryson takes us on a tour around his house, using the rooms and halls and features as jumping off points to talk about various discoveries and historical developments that went into shaping that room. (More or less, anyway. Bryson has a tendency to ramble.) I imagine At Home is the sort of book that my friends and family dread my reading, because I can’t stop myself from sharing trivia I learn from it.

Bryson loves lists. His lists of foodstuffs remind me of passages in Brian Jacques’ Redwall. This may bother some readers, as Bryson can’t seem to resist listing, say, the innovations that were shown at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition or the various servant positions available at a great home. It can be a little numbing after a while. Still, I was interested in pretty much every topic Bryson cared to include—with one exception. There is a long chapter in which Bryson discusses the Palladian movement and the building of great houses like Fonthill Abbey. I’m much more interested in the lives of ordinary people. (Because I am one.) Long descriptions of opulence tend to bring out my inner proletariat.

Because I was listening to At Home as an audiobook, I was also treated to Bryson’s soft, accented voice. Bryson is an American, but he’s been in England so long he doesn’t sound like one. It was funny to me to pick up the words that Bryson says like a Brit. Herbs, for example, he says with a hard h at the beginning. He also frequently refers to the Revolutionary War as the American War of Independence. I was amused. The only downside to listening to the book is that I had to keep googling places and terms to see what things looked like—I kind of wish I had read it, because even if the book isn’t illustrated, I would at least know how to spell things so that I could search for them. With British names correctly pronounced, I often had to guess at the spelling.

As I worked my way through the audiobook, I started to see my own house through new eyes. When Bryson talked about the geometry of the staircase, I looked at mind to see if it fit the narrow acceptable range of pitch and riser height. When I looked at my bedroom, I wondered about medieval and Renaissance people who would welcome house guests into their bedrooms and not think anything of it. When I dusted my lighting fixtures, I reflected on how dim rooms must have been before gas and electric light. To me, this place is just home. To Bryson, a home is the culmination of a lot of domestic evolution.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Give to readers who feel disconnected from their daily lives.