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A history of the world, one room at a time

  • Oct 26, 2010
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Even more than his boundless curiosity and wit, or his appreciation for the foibles and capacities of human nature, what makes Bryson so much fun to follow as he leads us on a tour of his 19th century English rectory house is the meandering pathway of his thoughts, probing back, back to the nub of things.

He doesn't know much about Mr. Marsham, the rector who built his house in 1851, for instance, but he makes up for that with fascinating snippets about more interesting clergymen. The church was a job for upper-class younger sons and required a university degree, but no study of divinity. "Though no one intended it, the effect was to create a class of well educated, wealthy people who had immense amounts of time of their hands. In consequence, many of them began, quite spontaneously, to do remarkable things."

Bryson, an American who has lived in England for many years, gives us a number of eye-opening examples, like the 18th century amateur mathematician Reverend Thomas Bayes whose elegant probability theorem had no practical use until the invention of the computer. It now models climate change, fixes radiocarbon dates, predicts the stock market, etc.

Readers familiar with Bryson's wide-ranging mind (A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods, The Mother Tongue) know that a tour of his house is really a framework for a global history, from the vantage point of private life. The dining room provides a portal into the scourge of scurvy and the age of exploration. "I can tell you at once that nothing you touch today will have more bloodshed, suffering and woe attached to it than the innocuous twin pillars of your salt and pepper set."

There's nothing he enjoys so much as delving back to the beginnings of things, including words, and gives us the genesis of most room names as well as the word "comfort," which, until the 19th century, meant solace, there being no concept of "comfortable," as in padded chairs and warm rooms.

He traces the beginnings of the middle class and the interconnections between rising global commerce and the new notion of comfort. Chippendale's mass-produced (comparatively speaking) furniture was made possible by imported mahogany (a type now extinct), shellac and more people with money.

Dining rooms were only invented to save upholstered furniture, which didn't come into being until the flying shuttle was invented in 1733, allowing wider fabric bolts. Once the room was invented, the 19th century took it to absurd lengths with as many as nine wineglasses (plus more for dessert) and up to 146 different pieces of flatware. All meant to distinguish the hoi polloi from the elite, of course.

Behind the excitement of every innovation are the people. Bryson is enthralled (another word he traces the origin of) by the non-professional innovator; men (mostly) of boundless energy and inquisitiveness.

If not for a forgotten canal worker, Canvass White, New York City might still be the backwater it was after the Revolution. At that time The Appalachian Mountains formed such an impenetrable barrier to trade along the Eastern seaboard "that many people believed that the pioneers living beyond the mountains would eventually, of practical necessity, form a separate nation."

While New York City's 1810 mayor (soon to be governor), DeWitt Clinton, gets credit for the Erie Canal, which connected the city with the Great Lakes, and the farmlands beyond, it was White who went to England to learn about hydraulic cement, without which no canal can be built. White not only picked up the English technique, he improved upon it, but instead of becoming rich and famous he was cheated by the manufacturers and died broke and bitter.

Bryson also manages to include histories of interior light, air, and heat, eating and sleeping habits, windows, the politics and consequences of taxes, farming innovations, and horticultural science. "The Stairway" provides a statistical analysis of falls throughout the world; "The Passage" leads us to Eiffel and his Tower, the many Vanderbilt mansions (in one a Rembrandt graced a breakfast nook) and other American excesses, Thomas Edison's crackbrained inventions, one of which was the concrete house, and the history of the telephone.

"The Bedroom" naturally evokes sex and death and surgery before the advent of anesthesia, and "The Bathroom" prompts a history of hygiene. "The Study," favored by Bryson's English mice, leads to discussions of mousetraps, rats, bats, germs and locusts.

Entertaining anecdotes abound and while Bryson debunks some apocryphal stories, he includes others of dubious factuality, like the one about John Jacob Astor wiping his greasy hands on a dinner guest's gown.

He entertains and educates and arouses a sense of wonder and the satisfied reader gets the distinct impression no one is having more fun than Bryson himself. Recommended for all who like their history accessible, idiosyncratic and humorous.

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review by . February 17, 2011
   I've occasionally reflected on the pace of change during the 20th century, but in this "short history of private life," Bill Bryson makes a convincing case that the magnitude of change may have been more striking during the 100 years preceding it. Domestic life as we know it today didn't really exist until pretty recent times, and Bryson explores its development via a room-by-room ramble through a 19th-century English country home - the former parsonage he lives in …
review by . October 22, 2010
Bill Bryson is at it again, he is back to telling history from an unique and witty perspective. With "At Home" Bryson wanders through his mid-1800s home and offers a bit about its history. I really do mean, "A bit" because while Bill Bryson begins in a particular room, such as the kitchen, dining rom, and etc. but he rarely stays there long. instead we are taken on tangets throughout history.     We discover the meaning of words (such a "Chairman" and "Room & Board")that routinely …
review by . September 13, 2010
Bill Bryson is a Renaissance man for our time. His books always seem to cover a myriad of subjects, no matter what the main object of the book is designed to cover. In this latest book, he moves through the old parsonage he and his family live in in the English countryside, and uses that building as the launching point for a history, not only of houses, but of each individual room within a house.      The book not only covers that particular subject, but it goes into a myriad …
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Lynn Harnett ()
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I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … more
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Starred Review. Bryson (A Short History of Everything) takes readers on a tour of his house, a rural English parsonage, and finds it crammed with 10,000 years of fascinating historical bric-a-brac. Each room becomes a starting point for a free-ranging discussion of rarely noticed but foundational aspects of social life. A visit to the kitchen prompts disquisitions on food adulteration and gluttony; a peek into the bedroom reveals nutty sex nostrums and the horrors of premodern surgery; in the study we find rats and locusts; a stop in the scullery illuminates the put-upon lives of servants. Bryson follows his inquisitiveness wherever it goes, from Darwinian evolution to the invention of the lawnmower, while savoring eccentric characters and untoward events (like Queen Elizabeth I's pilfering of a subject's silverware). There are many guilty pleasures, from Bryson's droll prose--"What really turned the Victorians to bathing, however, was the realization that it could be gloriously punishing"--to the many tantalizing glimpses behind closed doors at aristocratic English country houses. In demonstrating how everything we take for granted, from comfortable furniture to smoke-free air, went from unimaginable luxury to humdrum routine, Bryson shows us how odd and improbable our own lives really are.
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ISBN-10: 0767919386
ISBN-13: 978-0767919388
Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Arts & Photography, Home & Garden, Nonfiction
Publisher: Doubleday
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