I was browsing the bookshop in Heathrow, Terminal 3 (almost the only thing worth doing on Heathrow - what you might rightly think is the most horrific airport in the world until you have been to O'Hare) when that feeling started creeping over me - it would be nice to read something by Bill Bryson again. I did not have my hopes for a new book up however. But, to my surprise, there it was, At Home - A short history of private life by Bill Bryson just lying there!
I bought it. I read it.
The subtitle playing on Bryson's most well-known book: A short history of nearly everything . In a way it also reads like a distant cousin of that enjoyable publication. It is an explosion of fun facts, information, and even statistics as Bryson jumps from subject to subject. Reading At home is like a warm up at jeopardy boot camp!
As we learn from the main title however, this time it is about our homes, and not the natural history of the world. Something that may seem like a much smaller, and maybe not such an interesting undertaking. Of course Bill Bryson proves this wrong. Using his own home, an old rectory in the English country side, he ventures from room to room and provide an amazing amount of facts regarding construction, technologies, and activities even remotely associated with every space. From waste, plumbing, and toilets in the bathroom, to pregnancy, gardening, and telephones elsewhere; then even injury statistics associated with the staircase. I am amazed.
In fact I think that the scope proved so amazingly huge that Bryson had to limit himself. Although the book is almost 500 pages is stays in the western world geographically. In the U.K. to be specific (with some interesting excursions to America). Time-wise it is centered around the Victorian era, again with the odd excursion to historic times.
All of that is of course fine; the time and place is set around the industrial revolution when much happened that define what we today call a home. Also, given that the authors own house is used as a model it is appropriate. Still, I guess homes might vary in different cultures. Ancient Greek houses. Japanese gardens. Imagine having also their history presented! On the other hand, then we would probably be looking at a three-volume publication. At lest. So I understand Bryson.
My only real critique is that, to my surprise, I had the impression that the first few chapters were a bit sloppy edited. No real examples, just a feeling. Something that surprised me to some extent given the author. (On the other hand who am I to criticize? I still shudder when I re-read some of the posts I made on this web page.)
However this feeling disappeared quickly and I was thrilled by the amount of facts presented. This is really the lasting enjoyment of reading At home . It is quick and fun. I can not think of a better way of gaining general knowledge than reading Bill Bryson; the man is brilliant.
Actually, while reading it struck me that this book would be the perfect companion to role playing geeks. I am not as much into gaming as I once was, but I remember the discussions. How would a world in a historic setting work? Bryson's book is perfect for this! Better than any history text because it tells of everyday life and not on war! The Victorian focus is appropriate as well given today's steam punk hysteria. Yes, I would give this to any role player.
Finally, beside the multitude of facts and character portraits, At Home leaves me with appreciation for the range of improvements to western living we have seen the last few hundred years. It is easy to think that it was better before, but one marvels at how much of today's comfort that is actually the result of just 200 years of development.
We know that western living is not sustainable, however comfortable. At Home then show that we can not really go back to a world with 18th century technology either. It would be a very demanding place to live. Filled with death, illness, and filth. In fact many on earth are still forced to live like that today. Left is the question of how to use the knowledge we have gained to change our homes so that everyone can be comfortable and safe. It may be very unlike the places westerners have grown used to, but it can still be home.