Thursday, 7 October 2010

At Home by Bill Bryson

Lowdown: A thorough review of the development of modern culture as reflected by our homes.
The first thing you noticed about Bill Bryson's latest book, At Home, is its bulk. In its current hardcover form, each copy of this book is a manifestation of what used to be a whole Brazilian jungle. It's a big one, not unlike Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, the Bryson book most resembling At Home.
The premises of At Home is uncannily simple. Disappointed with George Bush's presidency, Bryson moved a few years ago back from his American birthplace to his adopted land of England. Living in this new [old] house he got there, he started asking questions about its history; the result of his questions is the book At Home. In each chapter of At Home Bryson looks at different rooms in the house, from the hall through the bedroom and the toilet to the nursery, and in each of those rooms he tells us stories of how these rooms that we now know and take for granted got to be the way they are now through history. You learn a lot in the process; At Home is packed with trivia, things like what dinner tables used to be like (parked on people's knees), expanding to bigger things like the darkness that prevailed over the night time world prior to the invention of electric light. This big journey that Bryson takes you through culminates in one big theme, which is a celebration of human culture: how we started off from humble beginnings, living in this harsh and indifferent world, and rose to live in a world where living can be a pretty comfortable affair and a world where we have risen to develop science. Yes, Bryson argues that such developments are the direct result of the way we used to live. As such, At Home is a celebration of what us humans have achieved; read it and you will be relieved that you are not living in any age earlier than ours, times when life was significantly more miserable than it is now. Thus At Home left me wondering what its 22nd century edition would say about us...
Describing the contents of At Home does not do it justice, for this is a Bill Bryson book first and foremost, and a Bill Bryson book has its quirks. Those who know Bryson from his travel writing will recognize the style, that massive collecting of trivia that is communicated in a very readable and humorous way. Most of this trivia will be forgotten by the time you flick the page, but it does have a lasting effect; you will finish At Home with a certain impression even if you don't remember all the tiny details. On one hand this is a positive, whereas on the other I was left craving for more substance I can cling to rather than a large collection of relatively shallow facts. Bryson doesn't help himself when he strays all over the place, discussing things that have not much to do with the room he is meant to be talking about (most notable is the chapter on cellars, which discusses everything but cellars). But that is Bryson for you; don't expect focus, expect easy yet enlightening entertainment.
At the personal level, Bryson's At Home was the last book I started reading before putting my hands on my very first ebook reader. With its thickness and bulk, At Home is probably the best advertisement electronic books can receive. And while on the subject of anecdotes, let it be noted that At Home was released in Australia some six months ago but in the USA it was only released a couple of days ago. If you thought movie studios are alone in subjecting the world to their twisted divide and conquer strategy then here come the book publishers showing us they can be just as dumb. You know what would come next: they will complain that piracy is killing them, yet they'll never look in the mirror to see how their own actions provide the manure on which piracy so beautifully prospers.
Other than that, the main thing I took from At Home is this: Make sure you close your toilet lead. Forget this tip at your own peril!
Overall: A long entertaining ride packed with trivia that's somewhere between 3.5 and 4 stars out of 5. Classic Bryson.

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