When I bought At Home: A Short History of Private Life I had absolutely no intention of writing a review for it on my blog. I recently read another book by Bill Bryson, and as far as this armchair scientist is concerned, books don’t get much better than A Short History of Nearly Everything. After reading that earlier this year, I knew I would read his next effort assuming it was along similar lines. In the weeks leading up to the release of At Home, I happened to catch a few interviews with Bill Bryson on shows I watch, like The Colbert Report. I didn’t think this book would relate to real estate at all. The way he described At Home, it seemed like a fun, quirky book about random things like why men’s suit jackets have useless buttons at the bottom of the sleeves, and why does everyone have salt and pepper on their dining table? While these questions are certainly answered, the book is so much more than that. At Home explains how the historical events and trends of our past have shaped the way we live, and the homes we live in today.
Bryson uses his own house to guide each chapter of the book and give some perspective as to where he’s going with all he writes. With each room in the home Bryson dives deep into Western European and American history to explain how each came into existance. The way we live has transformed a nearly unfathomable amount over the centuries. Bryson shows us where we began, where we’ve been, and ultimately, what got us where we are now. When you read a Bryson book it seems like every paragraph has one of those “Really? I didn’t know that!” moments in it. I was amazed at how easily you could see one trend develop into another and then eventually bring us to where we are today. It’s also amazing to see what has lasted through time, and still pops up in our daily lives. For example, every college tuition paying parent knows the phrase “room and board”. We all know what the room is, but everyone always asks what the “board” is. Well, now I know exactly what the board is. I’d tell you, but that would just be one less reason for you to read the book too!
An enormous amount of this book is about the history behind home design and architecture. I loved to see that Jefferson’s Monticello is featured prominantly as it’s influence on American home design is second to none. It’s pretty phenominal that such an important piece of architecture is just a two and a half hour drive from here. Someone in Hampton Roads could go see it any day they want. I’ve never been, and now there’s nothing more I’d like to do than to take a day trip and go on the House and Grounds Tour. But Jefferson is just one character in this novel that helped mold the homes of today. Most of the others you will never have heard of, and may never hear their names again. It surprises me that such men of influence have been all but forgotten.
While I found At Home to be extremely entertaining and informative, I must warn you, it is a history book. If you don’t like reading history, and lots of it, then you’re not going to enjoy this book. I promise you though, if you do, you’ll learn more than every history text book put together. Bryson frequently goes so far back, and covers so many aspects of our past you’ll completely forget where he was going with all of it. Often, I found myself reading for extended periods, and then all of a sudden I’d reach the end of the chapter and I couldn’t remember at all what room in his house the chapter was pertaining to. I’d have to go back to the beginning and see that I was reading about, for example, the kitchen, and then it would all hit me like, “yeah, that all makes sense”. Then I would stare and my refrigerator and realize how lucky I am to be alive today. At Home really puts into perspective how fortunate we are to live with the comforts that we have, and that every little thing in our homes has been shaped by thousands of years of human influence. Who knows how the events of today are affecting the way future generations will live in their homes?
I bet Bill Bryson does.