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

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In At Home: A Short History of Private Life author Bill Bryson takes readers on a tour of his home, a Victorian-era parsonage which was built in 1851. He uses the rooms in it as a starting point to explore the origins of things like stoves and toilets that we take for granted in our daily lives. But his is a very personal tour, and one built on his eclectic interests, not a comprehensive history of the home. That being said, At Home: A Short History of Private Life is very interesting reading, and most won’t mind how Bryson may seem to flit from one topic to another as the urge strikes him.

Bryson talks about different times in British, European, and even American history, but the bulk of his musings center around Victorian England, when his house in Norfolk was first built and lived in by Reverend Thomas Marsham. Sometimes his analogies to specific areas in his house seem more than a little forced. In the chapter entitled “The Passage,” centered aroung the English downstairs hallway, Bryson goes from talking about the Eiffel Tower and the history of concrete to the excesses of early 20th century Gilded Age Americans:

“Spending all this wealth became for many a more or less full-time occupation. A kind of desperate, vulgar edge became attached to almost everything they did. At one New York dinner party, guests found the table heaped with sand and at each place a little gold spade; upon a signal, they were invited to dig in and search for diamonds and other costly glitter buried within. At another party — possibly the most preposterous ever staged — several dozen horses with padded hooves were led into the ballroom of Sherry’s, a vast and esteemed eating establishment, and tethered around the tables so that the guests, dressed as cowboys and cowgirls, could enjoy the novel and sublimely pointless pleasure of dining in a New York ballroom on horseback.”

As long as you’re willing to go along for the ride, Bryson has some very interesting stories to tell. But At Home: A Short History of Private Life should be viewed more as a series of entertaining essays which have the home as a common denominator, rather than a complete history of private life. But for readers who like to hear the stories behind why we still have salt and pepper shakers on our dining room tables to the difficult life of a child, rich or poor, in Victorian England, At Home: A Short History of Private Life will provide an interesting, entertaining, and informative read.

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