In 1985, David Owen bought an old house in the country, fleeing the concrete cubic-foot confinement of an apartment in the Big Apple. Owen's new home was built in 1790, a big old dilapidated house that had been a former prep-school dormitory. Casting sensibility to the winds, he and his wife purchased it on pure intuition, omitting research into its faults that surely would have persuaded them not to buy it in the first place.
Then they began renovating, slowly. He wrote a book about it, called The Walls Around Us, and if you haven't read it yet, you've missed a funny and insightful book on old-house renovation, resonant with undertones of confidence fueled by the heat of burned bridges. By itself, the section on How to Find the Best Paint is worth the price of that book.
Around the House takes readers even deeper into the mystical aspects of home ownership, one salient of which is an unwritten law: those who work on their houses always wind up remodeling the space between their ears. Like an ancient house, the book has some funny rooms, with chapters like Nature's Double Standard and Benign Neglect. Well-written humor comes as no surprise to those familiar with Owen's previous books.
However, this one sings in the darndest places. Part of it is the astounding ease with which Owen gives you back fleeting moments of your own childhood, exploring mysterious rooms in creaky old houses. Some of it can be found in beautifully crafted epigrams, such as Owen's Law: whatever you learn by renovating an old house is exactly what you needed to know before you started. Much of it lies in the fact that, while Owen blithely tackles gigantic projects and labors that would startle Hercules he bought his first computer in 1981, to give you an idea of his daring he relies on manly instincts of procrastination when it comes to nonessential repair. Roof leaks? Find bucket. Air infiltration? Duct tape. He is one of us.
Best of all, though, Owen leads by example, showing his readers the utter futility of working on a house with the goal of finishing it. Like most, he is neither a working fool nor a loafer, although his apathy toward yard work will endear him to every homeowner in America. His dogged quest for more storage space balances it nicely, even when he explains that the concept of enough storage space is a wholly nonexistent ideal. Pursuing lost causes is its own reward.
The essays are short but full of sweetness, philosophy, humor, hopeless optimism, cautionary tales, and practical advice on how to saw the legs of a bed when the floors slope. Around the House will make you think, especially at those critical times just before you start tinkering with your own rooftree. Read this book first, to prepare your psyche for the adventure. Like any big project, it's a labor of love, which is always much wiser than mere logic.
Jeff Taylor is author of the book Tools of the Trade: The Art and Craft of Carpentry and the upcoming Tools of the Earth: The Practice and Pleasure of Gardening, both from Chronicle Books.