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Literary Open House

by B.A. Nilsson on January 19, 2011

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 498 Pages, $28.95

I knew that falling down your own stairs at some point is nearly inevitable. I knew that it can be lethal, especially to oldsters. I didn’t know that you can blame the staircase for it. Thanks to Bill Bryson’s relentless exploration of his living space—an old rectory in eastern England—I’ve learned that “unmarried people are more likely to fall than married people, and previously married people fall more than most of those.”

As for the stairs themselves: “Poor lighting, absence of handrails, confusing patterns on the treads, risers that are unusually high or low, treads that are unusually wide or narrow, and landings that interrupt the rhythm of ascent or descent are the principal design faults that lead to accidents.”

Having chronicled such activities as a trek along the Appalachian Trail and a trek across Australia, not to mention giving us A Short History of Nearly Everything, the bestselling Bryson had turned his engaging voice and penchant for obsessive research to the taken-for-granted aspects of life at home. Specifically, his home, which means that we’re treated to the particulars of a time and place unique to Bryson’s life but offering resonance for anyone who’s ever wondered how the rituals and appurtenances of life at home developed.
“Nothing about this house—or any house—is inevitable. Everything had to be thought of—doors, windows, chimneys, stairs—and a good deal of that . . . took far more time and experimentation than you might ever have thought.”

Bryson’s strategy and skill is an ability to awaken a curiosity about what you might have taken for granted, then satisfy that curiosity, provided you can hang on through what’s usually a wide-ranging, discursive narrative tour from room to room. If the book has a fault, it’s a tendency to wander so far afield that you wonder where the hell the house went. His chapter on the nursery, for example, begins logically enough with a colorful history of childbirth but soon veers into a sociological study of England’s poor, with mention of Malthus, Marx and Engels. Yet, by the end of the chapter’s 23 pages, not only does he bring the subject back to how the kids of poverty dwelled, but also takes a look at the accommodation of children of privilege, noting, for example, the practice of one Victorian father who “had eleven children but set out breakfast for only ten, to discourage slowness in arriving at the table.”

Starting in the hall (“No room has fallen further in history”), the journey winds us through kitchen, larder, cellar, study, garden (British for “yard”), bedroom, dressing room and more, with a stop at the fuse box that expands into a history of artificial light, dispelling the received notion that, during pre-electric days, people went to bed when it got dark. (“There certainly seems to have been no rush to bring the day to a close.”)

Although I was expecting to learn much about such old-house characteristics as plaster and lathe and knob-and-tube wiring—two of the banes of my own old-house ownership—the narrative tends to use each room as a jumping-off place for a macro view of social domestication. Thus, the chapter on the drawing room explodes into a look at some ambitious architects who designed cathedral-like mansions with varying degrees of success.

And the bathroom—ah, the bathroom!—gets 30 pages, making it one of the longest chapters, but what room is more transformative? From a history of the word “toilet” to disquisitions on hygiene (“Christianity was always curiously ill at ease with cleanliness . . . and early on developed an odd tradition of equating holiness with dirtiness”), we get the background not only on the room’s appliances but also a history of the processing of sewage itself, with an admirably restrained level of cheap scatological humor.

As his many fans know and expect, Bryson’s narrative voice is laced with humor, his writing style is accessible, and his passion for detail seems inexhaustible. This is a dense tome, tempting to consume in a concentrated burst, but suitable also for reading on the . . . but there’s no metaphorical need to go there.

The American author has an English wife, and the family has bounced back and forth across the Atlantic at various times. This is reflected in Bryson’s book subjects, which include Notes From a Small Island, a collection of essays about (and first published in) Great Britain; Made in America, ditto here, and The Lost Continent, ditto Europe. Like any conscientious writer, he’s also fascinated with the tools of his trade and has covered that subject in Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors and The Mother Tongue, much-needed beacons for a world in which even The New Yorker routinely fails to find the correct agreement between subject and verb. Not surprisingly, this book is educational on many levels; how nice that there’s also so much enjoyment mixed in.