Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bryson uncovers a world of wonders inside the home

At Home, by Bill Bryson
Published by Anchor Canada, a division of Random House Canada Limited, 2010

Bill Bryson is an author of immense curiosity, a characteristic that serves him well as a non-fiction writer who tackles diverse topics that include travelogues (In A Sunburned Country), outdoor adventures (A Walk In The Woods) and science exploration (A Short History of Nearly Everything).

In At Home, Bryson focuses that curiosity on the house that he and his wife occupy, a former church of England rectory in Norfolk, England. As Bryson points out in his introduction, "Houses are amazingly complex repositories...whatever happens in the world - whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over - eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house."

In this exhaustively-researched book, Bryson takes readers on a sweeping and amusing tour through his house, devoting entire chapters to the history of the bedroom, the bathroom, the study, the nursery, and so on. His exacting eye for detail and talent for summarizing trends, ideas and events makes At Home a thoroughly entertaining read.

In the chapter on Gardening, for instance, Bryson describes how the pleasant pastime we know today as planting geraniums and pruning roses can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. In 1841, a book entitled Practical Instructions in Gardening For Ladies was published, which encouraged "women of elevated class to get their hands dirty and even to take on a faint glow of perspiration."

Bryson writes:
"The value of Gardening for Ladies wasn't what it contained so much as what it represented: permission to go outside and do something. It came at exactly the right moment to catch the nation's fancy. In 1841, middle-class women everywhere were bored out of their skulls by the rigidities of life and grateful for any suggestion of diversion."
Many times I found myself awed by the obscure people of history who played pivotal roles in the advancement of western thought and civilization, such as the American educator, George Bissell who, in 1853, discovered by accident that oil could serve as an illuminant - a discovery that precipitated the rise of the oil industry; an illiterate weaver in England named James Hargreaves who invented the spinning jenny in 1764; and Reverend Edmund Cartwright, who (after a chance conversation) designed the power loom in 1785, a discovery that contributed to the start of the Industrial Revolution and impacted Britain's financial fortunes for decades.  

At Home is as much as history lesson as it is a meticulous exploration of ideas, customs, superstitions and bric-à-brac that might be found inside anybody's home. Whether it's tracing the history of bizarre fashions (male wigs) or food trends (salt and pepper) through the centuries, Bryson's takes an otherwise mundane subject and makes it relevant and endlessly fascinating.

For Bryson fans, At Home is everything you've come to expect from this talented author, a far-ranging curiosity, a passion for exploring the randomness and quirkiness of life, and an informal writing style that blends charm, empathy and humour. At the end of the day, this is a book I'm more than happy to recommend.