Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review of "At Home" by Bill Bryson

I am a big fan of Bill Bryson. His writing has caused me to laugh out loud in inappropriate situations time and time again. All his travel books are absolutely amazing and I recommend them to anyone. I also liked his short history of nearly everything, which provides an enjoyable introduction to science history, albeit not as funny as his travel books.

At Home sounded like it would be a book both funny and educational at the same time. In addition I feel that there is a bias in my historical knowledge towards war and despair and I hoped that this book might remedy that.

So maybe my disappointment with this book, in part, stems from my high expectations. While I did indeed learn quite a lot about things that you don't get from traditional history books, the book seemed rather disorganized, which was frustrating. In addition only rarely did Bryon flex his fantastic humor. Why Bill? It is like having Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio in a movie wearing Burkas...

Right at the start of the book Bill rightly points out that history generally ignores all the things we do most of the time such as eating, sleeping, socializing, having sex, etc. With this introduction, Bill goes on to tell the story of the Paxton's Crystal Palace and the great exhibition for which it was built. The great exhibition is a good starting point because so many new inventions, which changed our lives but rarely makes it to the history books, were shown there for the first time.

Bryson then takes us on a 700 page tour of a house, with each room leading to different histories. For instance, you will hear about the construction of the Eifel tower, a completely useless construction, which still was deemed a better project than another proposition - a 70m high guillotine. We learn about Magellan's voyage across the pacific where his crew (those few that survived) ate rat droppings and sawdust. We learn that burial grounds were lacking and that corpses were more or less piled on top of each other. The place where the national gallery stands, 70.000 bodies are estimated to have been buried.  

Yet another fascinating story is the one about lighting and how people used to walk streets in complete darkness which was convenient for criminals but not for ordinary persons. Then came the time of the oil lamps which caused innumerable fires as well as wide spread whale deaths. At last electricity was discovered and the light bulb was invented, with one light bulb providing lighting equivalent to numerous candles. What fantastic progress! I think it is difficult to imagine what life must have been like before. Of course there were the all to common anti-progress people who said that electricity was dangerous and would spell our surmise, when Edison assistant accidentally electrocuted himself they became even surer of them selves. One does not have to look far to find comparative situations today.

Bryson will provide the reader with many more snippets of interesting information, which may come in handy at the next cocktail party, here are a few of my favorites…

·      In the past chairs were always placed up against the wall (to avoid tripping over them in the dark) and therefore chair manufacturer did not paint the back of chairs.
·      Peppercorn is actually a dried wine, which used to be an immensely valuable commodity.
·      Mice can squeeze through 10mm cracks and are everywhere humans are
·      Rats do enter houses via the toilet
·      Before the invention of synthetic fertilizer, bird droppings were the favored product, and Peru’s export largely consisted of bird shit.
·      George Washington determined the location of Washington DC – near his plantation
·      Approximately 300.000 people in the UK are seriously injured from falling in the stairs each year.
·      Selling corpses to anatomists used to be a lucrative business
·      Smallpox used to kill 400.000 individuals each year before a vaccine was made
·      Queen Anne was so fat she had to be lifted out of Windsor castle using a crane

This list could of course be much longer, and if you decide to read the book you will get a lot of this. However, as already hinted at I think that the book lack a structure or a thread which is easily followed. The connection between the room that a chapter is focused on and what Bill writes about is sometimes… elusive

One of the things I found a bit disappointing was that the book is very centered on the UK and US, which I suppose I should have expected, but I really would like to know more about the everyday life of people in different cultures.

All in all, while this book may be a hit for some people it is not one that I would recommend to my friend. Rather go for one of Bill Bryson’s other books, which are frequently unforgettable. 

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