"I hardly need point out that history of any kind tends to sprawl." Bill Bryson
After nine days at about fifty pages a day, I have finished reading At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. I have had fun reading and have half a dozen post-it notes sticking out of the book. These mark entertaining bits that I shared with Bonnie or my Facebook friends or someone at the library. Bryson tells wonderfully obscure stories that show how greedy, clever, gullible, philanthropic, prejudiced, and heroic that humans can be. While many of the stories have humorous twists, tragedy stakes a big claim on much of this text about - (pause for dramatic effect) - What is this book about? What is "private life"?
After coming to the end of At Home, I went back to the introduction to seek the glue that holds the book together. That's when I saw the quotation above. I didn't realize its significance first time through. It jumped at me on second reading. It explains everything.
At Home is a history that embarks from observations about a house, specifically a Victorian parsonage in England in which the Bryson family lives. While each chapter is named for a room or the gardens, Bryson never keeps us there. Instead, he takes us around the world and through time to consider crucial events of history that contributed to existence of that kind of room being in houses in Europe or the Americas. The chapter on the scullery and larder discusses the lives of British servants before the twentieth century, while the chapter on the dressing room includes Bryson's thoughts about men wearing powdered wigs back in the eighteenth century. The chapter on the nursery includes history of infant mortality and child labor laws. Premature burial is discussed in the chapter on the bedroom. As Bryson points out, history sprawls.
Bryson will wear some readers out with this expansive book. Others who do not mind rambling may enjoy it immensely.
Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. 2010. ISBN 9780767919388.