Saturday, December 4, 2010

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

Bill Bryson couldn’t write a bad book if offered a considerable sum of money to do so. Oh wait, I actually think that may have happen. The only book of his that I really didn’t cotton to, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, was comparatively lame. Speaking of which…ever wonder where the phrase “cotton to” came from? I didn’t think so, but of course that will not stop me from edifying you on the etymology. Briefly (please, no need to thank me), cotton was a very soft and “likable” fiber, so by the 17th century cotton evolved to “taking a liking to.”

At this point you’re probably wondering what etymology has to do with Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and the answer is simple. Everything! In At Home Bryson tracks the etymology (I’m practicing using my new word) of various rooms and features of houses, and the stuff commonly found in them. Specifically he is writing about his home, a former Church of England rectory built in the 19th century. In the process we learn useless minutia such as why cabinet refers both to the advisors to a President and a box full of medicine and cosmetics on the wall of a bathroom, and why toilet water refers both to perfume and the contents of the commode.

In the hands of just about anyone else the topic could be stupefyingly dull, but Bill Bryson can describe drying paint and have you hanging on his every word and laughing yourself to tears. At least that is my opinion, but not everyone agrees, especially with regard to At Home. My husband said he found it dry.

And not everyone becomes as titillated as I at learning that parks arose from a need for more places to bury people. So graveyards were moved from churches to open areas with lots of trees that attracted people. Next thing you know, Charles Darwin is sent about to gather more interesting plants for the cemetery “parks,” which as you know led to a change in how we look at our very existence! Bryson’s diatribe about parks evolved from his exposĂ© on the home garden, or what us “amerkins” call the yard.

The whole issue of dressing rooms and vanities brought up a plethora of puzzling and repugnant stories. For example, Beau Brummell (pictured to the right - who I’ve heard referenced but never really knew who he was) was sort of the Paris Hilton of his time (1800’s). Apparently, he dressed so elegantly that he “attracted a daily audience that included the Prince of Wales, three dukes, a marquis, two earls and others who assembled in his dressing room to watch him bathe, dress and ready himself for a day of looking utterly smashing.” That’s just weird. Click on Read More Below...

Unlike with audio versions of his other books, Bryson reads this one himself and, although some readers might think his delivery sleep inducing, I found his cerebral, British-droll presentation charming. Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but lived most of his adult life in the UK.  His most popular books are A Walk In The Woods and A Brief History of Almost Everything. To this list I would add Shakespeare: The World As Stage.

Did you know that “sleep tight” originated from the ropes used to hold up mattresses before the invention of box springs? When ones’ bed ropes were tight, ones' comfort was optimal. At Home is a pastiche (my other new word) of things you didn't know you'd enjoy knowing.

I wish Bryson had been my history teacher when I was a kid. His stories about Monticello and Mount Vernon, salt and pepper, and a zillion other crazy things were just fun. If I could remember a tenth of the trivia I learned in At Home, I could hold court for hours in any bar in town.

However, if you don’t have a pretty high tolerance for meandering stories filled with wit, irony and interesting anecdotes, and a pathological interest in useless information to inject into conversations, you’d probably hate At Home. I loved it.


  1. Well I know that this will really surprise you, but I liked the book the Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid--I thought it was funny--but then again Bill has accused me of having a warped sense of humor.
    Why was it lame to you--I know, you were wanting to learn something and I just wanted some funny mindless reading! Hope your holidays were good! Linda Sue

  2. Not sure why I didn't particularly care for Thunderbolt Kid. Just didn't do it for me, but you know books are like Mexican food - very personal.