At Home: A Short History of Private Life wasn’t on my list, but since I was too wrapped up in it to read anything else this month, I’m going to count it towards my 12 books. It’s my challenge. I can do what I want. Besides, it turns out that I don’t own The Accidental Tourist, so I was down one from my list anyway.
Let me get this out of the way: I love Bill Bryson. Love him. I’ve read In A Sunburned Country enough times that I can tell Bryson’s anecdotes as if they were my own. I don’t feel as passionately about everything he’s written, but I am predisposed to enjoy his work.
That said: At Home is excellent. After taking on science and history in his last big fat work of non-fiction, in this book Bryson restricts his focus to the four walls of his home – and the curious and complicated ways that the things we encounter in our domestic spheres came to be there. With every chapter – each focused on a different room, feature, or appliance – I learned something new and more often than not found myself laughing out loud. Among other things, I learned that:
- Someone thought it was a good idea to burn lime for lighting, hence the term limelight – except that it is incredibly hot and dangerous.
- Science isn’t really sure why whales produce spermaceti, the oil for which they were hunted – to devastating effect – right up to the 20th century.
- A lot of really ridiculous British homes were built for no good reason, and many of them didn’t survive the agricultural and sociopolitical challenges of the 19th-20th centuries.
- Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a fan of stairs, but he did have a set of double doors rigged up so that if you opened one, the other opened automatically. It wasn’t until sometime in the 20th century that preservationists figured out how he did it.
- Thomas Jefferson may not have invented French fries, but he is almost certainly responsible for them being described as such.
See what I mean? The whole book is packed full of anecdotes and factoids, the sorts of things that will come in handy when you’re walking through a museum and happen across a photo of a man wearing bizarre sunglasses to protect his eyes against the Argand lamp, a predecessor of the kerosene lamp. It’s fascinating, fun stuff, and I highly recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in domesticity, history, or anything tangentially related to either.