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At Home: A Short History of Private Life    by Bill Bryson order for
At Home
by Bill Bryson
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Bill Bryson is well known for excellent travel books like In A Sunburned Country. He also wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which he makes science accessible, lacing his account with humor and entertaining anecdotes. Now, in At Home, he turns his insightful eye to the house in which he lives, a rural English parsonage, looking at it room by room and back through the dust of time.

He tells us in his Introduction that history is really 'masses of people doing ordinary things' and then goes on to explore how all that ordinariness evolved. He wonders why we have salt and pepper shakers rather than salt and cinnamon, why suits have pointless buttons on every sleeve, why people talk of room and board. He looked for answers and shares them with his readers.

Among the fascinating facts that we discover with the author are that the Great Exhibition's Crystal Palace was designed by a gardiner; that English county clergy (who had tons of time on their hands) were a remarkably inventive lot; that the Neolithic inhabitants of Skara Brae had locking doors and elemental plumbing; and that 'the development of the fireplace became one of the great breakthroughs in domestic history'.

We learn of the significance of the ice industry, which allowed food to be sold in distant markets; of the application of kerosene and gas to heating and lighting, and how the latter changed room layouts; of the emergence of dining rooms to avoid the 'greasy desecration' of new upholstered furniture; and of how the invention of hydraulic cement built New York's fortunes.

From archeology to architecture, microbes to potatoes, Bill Bryson offers fascinating insights gleaned from dry statistics and historical facts. What struck me in reading was how so much of what we consider normal in daily life could have evolved very differently with miniscule shifts in history. Bryson ends with a comment on our greedy use of the planet's resources, suggesting that 'The greatest possible irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither.'

At Home : A Short History of Private Life is a must read for budding architects, and highly recommended to anyone with a curious bone in their body and an interest in what is around them. It would make a great holiday gift too.

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