Wednesday, September 25, 2013

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

by Bill Bryson
New York : Doubleday, c2010.

Bryson lives (lived?) in a former rectory in England, and one day had the idea of going through every room in the house and researching the history of something related to that room: trade for the kitchen, food for the dining room, sex for the bedroom, etc. What follows is a social history much in the same vein as A Short History of Nearly Everything was for science, ranging all over the place in topic but surprisingly coming back around with interesting connections to mid-19th century England and some of the amazing changes going on in simply living during the Industrial Revolution.

At 452 pages (not counting bibliography and index), this is the longest and most dense book that I've read for my library book discussion, but I'm glad I persevered. It's an entertaining popular history using primarily secondary sources with, as Bryson is known for, many tangents, humor, and interesting tidbits thrown in for good measure. Unlike many of his books, At Home is on the denser side of pop history. There is a lot of information thrown into this book, and I found myself forgetting what I'd read before and being surprised when a name later in the book carried a reference to a previous chapter, something that you'd think might happen less in a book that ranges over such diverse topics as sex, food, trade, childhood, and more. Except for this fact, each chapter is rather disparate in subject to the extent that you could get away with skipping to the parts you're most interested in and not losing much context along the way. Bryson is sometimes criticized for not having notes; this book has them, albeit online instead of in the text. His extensive bibliography ensures the possibility of follow up for any subject that may particularly catch your fancy.

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