The subtitle of ‘At Home’ by Bill Bryson is ‘A Short History of Private Life’ – in other words, a history of all aspects of domestic life including eating, cleaning and sleeping and so on. As well as exploring how the modern idea of the home has developed over history both in its architecture and our daily habits, each chapter covers a different room in the house – the kitchen, the dining room, the cellar (even the fusebox) and the stories behind how we live. ‘At Home’ covers an ambitious amount of history without ever being overwhelming or tedious and Bryson’s characteristically dry humour makes it a thoroughly entertaining read.
The book never drags as there is an awful lot of information crammed in from epic amounts of research – the bibliography and index alone take up 68 out of the 700 pages in the book. For this reason, ‘At Home’ felt like quite a quick read in spite of the size of the book because there are some chapters where it feels like Bryson has barely scratched the surface. About half of the chapter devoted to the kitchen, for example, is about Mrs Beeton where any number of different stories could have been chosen instead. The chapters are not so much histories of individual rooms but rather act as springboards for exploring particular topics as varied as germs, ice, lighting, the construction of the Eiffel Tower, salt, cotton and much much more. The links are tenuous but never irrelevant. I particularly enjoyed Bryson’s portraits of obscure architects and inventors – just like he brought obscure scientists to life in ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’.
Some readers may find Bryson’s style of writing a little bit rambling but those who have read his previous work are unlikely to be bothered by this. I would say Bryson’s style is more meandering than rambling as he never strays too far from the subject at hand and the order in which he presents seemingly random things does have some sort of logic to it. ‘At Home’ is an immensely readable book with something new to learn on every page. Bryson has a gift for explaining complicated, dry things in an uncomplicated, interesting manner without dumbing down the quality of the prose.
Bryson’s earlier travel books often explored the most extraordinary and unique places on the planet. ‘At Home’ is where he brings the everyday stuff to life.