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At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson


Although Bryson’s book is subtitled “A Short History of Private Life,” it is a solid 497 pages of exploring western history through the outline of one home and its rooms. The author looks at topics as varied as the building of Crystal Palace, the history of farming, interior heating, the East India Company, rabid bats, the art of building staircases, and indoor plumbing. Each of the rooms, which include the hall, kitchen, scullery, fuse box, drawing room, dining room, cellar, passage, study, garden, plum room, stairs, bedroom, bathroom, dressing room, nursery, and attic, is used as the background for stories from history, sociology, science, architecture, and various other fields. Bryson begins with the background and some history surrounding his home, a former rectory built in the 1850’s, and inhabited by Reverend Thomas Marsham and his family. He addresses the question of why people live in houses, and the sociological and technological changes which were required from the formerly nomadic population before they settled. As the author moves from room to room, we learn not only about the history of his house, but about the struggles of putting food on the table, the innovation of ice, expectations of servants, fuel sources of the past two hundred years, interior design trends, the invention of mousetraps, and so on. Since this book addresses so many different topics, one might get a little dizzy jumping from topic to topic. However, the idea of using a house to tie together a variety of different fields makes for great reading. It’s a bit too hefty to be a bathroom reader, although along the same lines, you may find yourself sharing tidbits with friends, “Hey, did you know…?” This is a wonderfully educational book, and manages to be engaging and fun at the same time — no easy task.

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