Wednesday, January 19, 2011

For anyone of a rational disposition, fashion is often nearly impossible to fathom.

I just finished Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life and I was not disappointed.  Bryson's history books, At Home, A Short History of Nearly Everything and his Shakespeare biography Shakespeare: The World as Stage are less laugh out loud funny than when he writes his own personal anecdotes, either in his travelogues or memoir, but this is hardly to say that this book was devoid of humor.  It's just more understated.  Even without belly aching humor this is a book I'm sure I'll re-read a few times.  History has never been my favorite subject to read and most of the time when reading historical texts I find my mind wandering.

Perhaps because Bryson comes to history from such an amateurs point of view I never feel alienated or bogged down by obscure details.  If anyone else were to write a book that included the history of the modern London sewage system I'm sure I would laugh at the subject and immediately put the book down.  When Bryson does it though I'm intrigued.  He is able to stress the importance of the engineering of this new system of plumbing in a way that I can understand and appreciate.  And of course there's his voice: "Late in life [Joseph Bazalgette] was knighted, but he never really received the fame he deserved.  Sewer engineers seldom do." (location 6213) Bryson appreciates the accomplishments of Bazalgette and others like him and is able to articulate that enthusiasm to a reader like me, who has no natural interest in such topics.

In the intro Bryson describes his purpose of the book
So I formed the idea to make a journey around it, to wander from room to room and consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life.  The bathroom would be a history of hygiene, the kitchen of cooking, the bedroom of sex and death and sleeping, and so on.  I would write a history of the world without leaving home. (location 107)
Most of the time he accomplishes this and you can see how the room he is investigating relates to the history he's sharing.  Sometimes, especially in the final "Attic" chapter, he goes off in such a direction that I was never able to make the connection between the story and the room at the top of a house.  But that never bothered me.  I love the short random stories and it doesn't especially bother me if the stories are not directly related, as long as they're interesting.  I have enough ADD that I have no problem jumping between topics.  For those nervous about this, the book is fairly consistent and of course does have the over-arching theme of how home life has changed over time and what lead to the changes.

Title quote from location 6427

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life.  Doubleday, 2010.  ebook.