A house's history comes alive
It is always difficult to review a Bill Bryson book, since I’m tempted to indulge in sweeping declarations (“Bill Bryson may well be the wittiest man on the planet,” for instance) and then support such bold assertions with numerous quotes from his book. Problem is, I also want to say that he is exceptionally insightful, that he sports a keen sense of the English language and its peccadilloes, and on and on. And somehow I have to fit all that into the brief space of a review. Never has this been more the case than with his latest book, At Home.
At Home builds upon his earlier work, A Short History of Nearly Everything, this time narrowing the scope of the investigation to the everyday things found within (and about) the home: the architecture; the individual rooms; the plumbing, electrical and communications systems; the furniture. Bryson’s English countryside home is a Victorian parsonage where “nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped.” But “this old house” makes a very convenient jumping-off point for a look at topics as far-reaching as the spice trade with the Moluccas (did you know that the difference between herbs and spices is that herbs come from the leafy parts of plants and spices come from the non-leafy parts?), the Eiffel Tower (Eiffel also designed the skeleton of the Statue of Liberty, whose fragile bronze shell is a mere 1/10” thick), bat warfare (the plan was to launch up to a million bomb-laden bats over Japan at the height of WWII; when they came to roost, the bombs would go off, or so the theory went) and Samuel Pepys’ inadvertent descent into a basement afloat in human waste (“. . . which doth trouble me”).
Somehow, curiously but inevitably, all of these seemingly unconnected particulars fit together neatly within the framework of a house. As Bryson notes in the introduction, history is “masses of people doing ordinary things.” And the common house? “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”