Monday, October 4, 2010

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

One of the most appealing qualities a person can possess is curiosity, and Bill Bryson has it by the bucketful. Which of course, makes him one of the most delightful and insightful writers around. Not only is Mr. Bryson insatiably curious, but he draws us in through his enthusiasm, his wit, and the pure beauty of his writing. Not since discovering P.G. Wodehouse during my freshman year of high school have I laughed out loud simply at the way a writer rubbed two words together.

In his latest outing, Mr. Bryson has given us the entire history of private life, without ever leaving the 150 year old rectory he calls home located in Norfolk, England. Moving from room to room in his house and discussing the contents, the development of its purpose, the architecture, the servants, the lighting, the furnishings, and the people who used the room, we learn about the development of the heart of a people: the homes of the people who live there.

One of the gifts of the book is its many small segues. One never knows where Bill Bryson will take you, but it’s always an amazing ride. One such example is the Nursery. The discussion of the nursery involves a look at infant mortality, child labor laws, domestic missionary work and the reforms of the Poor Laws, children’s place in society (even the wealthy ones), public schools and Charles Darwin.

And then there is the humor. In a typical passage describing Clergymen who made significant contributions to history, Bryson writes:

"In Dorset, the perkily named Octavius Pickard-Cambridge became the world’s leading authority on spiders while his contemporary the Reverend William Shepherd wrote a history of dirty jokes. John Clayton of Yorkshire gave the first practical demonstration of gas lighting. The Reverend George Garrett, of Manchester, invented the submarine. Adam Buddle, a botanist vicar in Essex, was the eponymous inspiration for the flowering buddleia. The Revered John Mackenzie Bacon of Berkshire was a pioneering hot air balloonist and the father of aerial photography. Sabine Baring-Gould wrote the hymn “Onward, Christian Solders” and, more unexpectedly, the first novel to feature a werewolf. The Revered Robert Stephen Hawker of Cornwall wrote poetry of distinction and was much admired by Longfellow and Tennyson, though he slightly alarmed his parishioners by wearing a pink fez and passing much of his life under the powerfully serene influence of opium."

If The New York Review of Books had a Sexiest Man Alive issue, Bill Bryson would be on the cover every year.

Many readers are familiar with Bill Bryson through his earlier works: A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. For them, a new book by Bryson is always a cause for celebration. A chance to spend a few hours in the company of this charming guide is an opportunity to be savored.

Publisher: Doubleday (October 5, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0767919388

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