Monday, April 18, 2011

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

One advantage of being sick is that I can catch up on my reading.  I just finished a good book by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors.  At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010, Doubleday) uses Bryson's home, a 19th century rectory in Norfolk, England, as the jumping off point to discuss a whole host of interesting topics.

Chapters are titled "The Hall", "The Kitchen", "The Stairs", "The Cellar", etc. which make you think he's simply going to describe his home and the history of why we have the various rooms and features we do in our homes.  It's much more.

Here's just one example.  In the chapter on the bathroom, Bryson discusses ancient toilets, Roman baths, filthy Christians in the Middle Ages, smallpox, how people rarely if ever bathed in the 18th century, chamberpots, the development of London's sewer system, cholera, and the appearance of bathrooms in hotels (the Midland Hotel in London was built in 1873 as a luxury hotel and only had 4 bathrooms for 600 guest rooms!).

Another example is the chapter on the fuse box.  Here Bryson covers the World War II blackouts in Britain, living by candlelight, the surprising information (to me, at least) that people in pre-electric days did not generally go to bed with the Sun but kept the same kind of hours we do today with some routinely staying up to all hours of the night, various fuels people have used to light their homes (tallow, whale oil, kerosene, gas), a short history on the discovery of oil in Pennsyvlania, stoves, the hazards of fire, and the development of electric lights.

Each of the 19 chapters are similar.  While he wanders all over the place, it all ties together and it's all interesting.  This is history I love to learn about - not a recitation of events, but seeing how everything is related and ties together.  Bryson's wit and easy-to-read style made it a joy to read.

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