At Home with Bill

Raving About Reading: An Unabashedly Enthusiastic Review of Bill Bryson’s New Book

A disclaimer: I love Bill Bryson. Oh, not in a carnal way — I doubt either of our spouses would stand for that — it’s his writing that I’m smitten with.  So I make no promises that this review will be impartial in any way. Also, I was fortunate enough to receive an advanced reading copy — thank you Doubleday — so the final publication may differ from the one I have reviewed.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

I’m not the kind of person who looks at a fork and wonders why they have five tines. And it would never occur to me to think about why lawns are so much more common in the US than in the UK.  As long as my flatware is effective at shoveling, er, raising food to my mouth, and I don’t have to mow said lawn, I’m not too concerned.

Bill Bryson is. Or perhaps “concerned” isn’t quite the right word. It’s more that he has an abiding curiosity about why things are the way they are, and this interest shines through in many of his books. Take, for example, A Walk in the Woods, Bryson’s travelogue about hiking the Appalachian Trail. As he walks the path, Bryson serves up a hefty dose of information about the Trail and its plants and animals,  presented in the most interesting way imaginable.  In fact, whenever I recommend this book to someone at my library, it’s always with a warning.  Don’t read it in a public place unless you’re prepared to brazen out the odd looks that will come your way when you start giggling to yourself.

Bill Bryson  has the mind of a researcher, which, luckily for us,  is paired with a keen eye for the ludicrous. Perhaps due to his newspaper background, he is also a wordsmith, seemingly able to write about anything in a clear, concise manner.

At Home is a tour of Bryson’s own, home, a 19th century rectory in Norfolk, England. Each room serves as a jumping-off point to explain some facet of private life. Packed with details about everything from clothing to food to toilets, this book contains of wealth of information and could be a goldmine for writers of historical fiction.

In the dressing room, for instance, we read the story of a prince who employed four valets to powder his wig, each in a different color.  Unwilling to be upstaged, another nobleman promptly hired five men to look after his hair, and yet another hired six.

The scullery and larder serve as an opportunity to enlighten us about the lives of servants. Here we learn about a working day that typically ran from 6:30 am to 10:00 pm, unless, of course, there was an evening social event. When we move to the drawing room, Bryson shares his take on the history of architecture. And so we continue the tour throughout the eighteen rooms that make up the Bryson domicile,  discovering in each, the history of a different aspect of private life.

Because the rectory is in England, where the author has lived for most of his adult life, the book focuses primarily on English home life. But much of recent English history is intertwined with “the colonies,” and there’s a fair bit of American lore included.

While not as laugh out loud funny as his travel books, Bryson has once again managed to put a human face on a part of history that many of us know little about. If you are a lover of history, or a historical fiction writer, I’d definitely recommend taking a look.

At Home doesn’t have an index, something the librarian in me cries out for. But as a reader, I recognize that the book wasn’t probably intended as a resource for historical research. That said, there is a lengthy bibliography which should be useful. is the link to the Borders record of the book which comes out in early October 2010.

About kymlucas

"Taking care not to take love too seriously." Writer of smart, fresh, contemporary romance and women's fiction. Blogging about writing, reading, and more recently, dealing with the ins and outs of breast cancer.
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