643: At Home by Bill Bryson

by Gerard

643.1: Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Anchor, 2011. 532 pp. ISBN 978-0-7679-1939-5.

The 640s is the division for home economics and family living, or put better, the home for homes. There’s even a special section for housing and household equipment—643. 643.1is the subsection for works broadly covering the home, but there’s a subsection for works just about kitchens (643.3) or about bathrooms (643.52), so if one were inclined, you could get very specific very fast.

Bill Bryson’s At Home is subtitled “A Short History of Private Life”, and it largely accomplishes its goal. Bryson structures his history on a tour through a Victorian parson’s house, conceived and built by Thomas Marsham during the nineteenth century. In his usual peripatetic style, he journeys through the house, talking how each particular room developed through history, and then (almost predictably) digressing into smaller and more meandering histories of everyday items and traditions. The chapter on the dining room alone includes a history of spices (sparked by the salt and pepper shakers), a history of vitamins (as a byproduct of talking about scurvy in the history of spices), a sidebar on coffee, and then a quick look into how modern mealtimes came into being.

His tour through the house is paralleled by the story of the Crystal Palace, a wonderful edifice of lead and glass created for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. This building was unlike anything that had come before, and represented the pinnacle of construction and engineering. If you’ve read his Short History of Nearly Everything, then you’re already prepared for the breakneck speed at which Bryson can change subjects and how every four pages can bring forth a new and interesting micro-history on something or other. Bryson’s roller-coaster of history takes us into the fields of archaeology, biology, chemistry, fashion, etiquette, and sociology.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, in part because it was a wild romp through history’s most idiosyncratic personages and in part because it teaches us that history is full of small changes that lead to bigger ones that created the world as we know it. Now, to be fair, some of Bryson’s claims are tenuous at best, such as the assertion that the extinction of the Rocky Mountain locust successfully stopped the world from plunging into widespread communism. And there’s a lot of anecdotal history that he tends to see as absolutely representative rather than uniquely localized. On the whole, however, it is a nice book to flip through and get a glance of all kinds of subjects at once.