Sunday, March 6, 2011

At home, room by room

I spent a good part of last week reading Bill Bryson's At Home, subtitled "A Short History of Private Life."  I guess it qualifies as a short history if it ranges over 10,000 years in only 452 pages. 

I thought this would be a good segue from Lark Rise to Candleford, with its domestic details of Victorian life, despite its very different setting.  I've never read any of Bryson's other books, though I know people who are major fans (a friend has given me his book on Australia, which sits on the TBR pile).  At Home got great reviews when it came out late last year, and it ended up on the NYT best-seller lists.  I found the idea behind it really intriguing: building a history of domestic life through exploring each room in a house, looking at its history and function. As the base, Bryson takes his own home, a Victorian rectory in Norfolk, England.

The cover list another one of Bryson's titles is A Short History of Nearly Everything, and at times I felt like I had picked up that book instead.  The amount of information in this book, the level of detail, can be a bit overwhelming (as reviewers had noted).  As an archivist, I know how impossible it can be not to share the exciting research discoveries.  It's so fascinating that I can't keep it to myself - surely everyone else will be just as fascinated.  Sometimes they are, and sometimes their eyes glaze over.  Some of the lists, of which Bryson is so fond, had a slight glazing effect.  To take one example, from p.260: "All across the country rich landowners packed their grounds with grottoes, temples, prospect towers, artificial ruins, obelisks, castellated follies, menageries, orangeries, pantheons, amphitheaters, exedra (curved walls with niches for busts of heroic figures), the odd nymphaeum, and whatever other architectural caprices came to mind."  There are other caprices left unmentioned?!

I had to make a conscious effort to relax, not to worry about remembering all the details, all the names.  I did make some notes, particularly of my favorite details or anecdotes, like the Newfoundland display at the 1851 Great Exhibition, on "the history and manufacture of cod liver oil," which was so boring that it "became an oasis of tranquility, much appreciated by those who sought relief from the pressing throngs."  Or that "In the 1780s, just to show that creative ridiculousness really knew no bounds, it became briefly fashionable to wear fake eyebrows made of mouse skin."

This book is more than just a collection of fascinating details or anecdotes, and I think it's one to re-read, perhaps in smaller doses.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!