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At Home: A Short History of Private Life

by Bill Bryson

Anchor Books, a division of Random House | 2011

Reviewed by Emily Rosen

bill bryson

Be careful what you ask for, because you may get it  – a kind of paraphrase of the original “wish for” and having nothing to do with the “Law of Attraction.”  I asked to review Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home: A short History of Private Life, because I am a major Bill Bryson fan. A burly American now living in England, his wit, exuberance, love for the outdoors and unbridled curiosity about every bit of minutia in the universe, has captivated me continuously throughout seven of his previously published 14 books.


But I was hoodwinked on two counts: A “short” history is deceptive nomenclature when one is facing a deadline and holding a 532 page paperback, (plus 44 pages of bibliography, picture credits, index, and floor plans). And voyeur that I am, Private Life really suckered me in. But I am here to tell you that there is nothing in these pages that is private. Bryson has chosen to take his reader on a room by room scavenger hunt, albeit to some very “private” places.

He has combined his tour with several detours into historical trivia, as we roam leisurely with him throughout his home, a former Church of England rectory of the Victorian era, in the easternmost part of England, a house he purchased from a Mr. Marsham, (to whom he often refers) a country parson responsible for the original building of the structure.

I was grabbed by Bryson’s introductory explanation of this project …” I thought it might be interesting…to consider the ordinary things in life and treat them as if they were important, too … I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me … Sitting at the kitchen table one day, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two …. So I formed the idea to make a journey around it (the house) … to consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life.“

Think not that he exaggerates when claiming to visit “room by room.” In addition to the standard rooms one expects to find, Bryson treats us to explorations of the attic, the hall, the cellar, the garden, the stairs, the dressing room, the scullery and larder, and lest the Fuse Box should feel ignored, he included that, too, in details worthy of its contribution to “the good life.”

What exactly does he “do” you might ask. Let’s take the Dining Room, which he describes as being 30 feet long, big enough to accommodate up to about 20 guests, a huge number for a country parson. Bryson then conjectures that in the original house, there would have been an object of costly elegance atop the table, something known as an epergne (“ay-pairn”) which he describes in detail.

Why was it called an epergne? “No one remotely knows. The word doesn’t exist in French. It seems to have popped to being from nowhere.”     We are then treated to a plethora of information about the condiment racks, the cruet stands, their contents and a brief musing about the reason for the endurance of salt and pepper as a table staple, diverting the reader to the bloodshed and suffering and yea, even woe, “attached to the twin pillars of your salt and pepper set.”

He spends about 28 pages on nutrition, spices, vitamins, dietary deficiency, scurvy, Vasco da Gama’s various voyages, coffee and sugar, and he reformats history like no history teacher you ever had. It is all delectably readable, and fun, replete with the staccato of his language and the blade of his wit.

Of course, you’ll want to know about the bedroom, a site considered “strange” by Bryson as he plumbs it for illness, retreat, joy and dread, not to mention its work toll on anyone turning and plumping mattresses, as well as defying the weight of 40 pounds of feathers in the typical feather bed.

Okay, okay. I know you’re waiting for the sexy part. Let not your hopes be raised. “For men, the … preoccupying challenge was not to spill a drop of seminal fluid outside the sacred parts of marriage -- and not much there, either, if they could decently manage it … seminal fluid, when nobly retained within the body enriched the blood and invigorated the brain.”

And get this!“The consequences of discharging this natural elixir illicitly was to leave a man literally enfeebled in mind and body. It was therefore concluded, (by some anonymous dumdum) that males needed to be spermatozoically frugal, and therefore he (or possibly she?) recommended intercourse as a maximally monthly occurrence.”

And so on into the 532 pages of fascinating trivia that will do very little to elevate your mind, but may indeed create a more intense critical eye as you wander in and out of your own life awakening the lethargy, indifference and possible blindness to your surroundings.

Fun as this was, personally, I preferred being with Bryson during his travels to Australia, and his trek through the Appalachians. And you can be sure that I would never use that old cliché: That’s what makes horse races.

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