In At Home Bill Bryson makes history personal. Known for Notes from a Small Island and A Short History of Nearly Everything, this time the author takes us on a journey through history without leaving the comfort of home.
Not long after Bryson and his family moved into a former Church of England rectory in the Norfolk countryside, he stumbled upon a secret door. “It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.” With this single discovery his curiosity about the mysteries of domestic living sparks, and we are off for an unforgettable journey through our most intimate space.
Bryson is an easygoing tour guide, and as we follow him from room to room we are shown hidden clues to the economic and social history that surrounds our everyday lives. The countless items and comforts we take for granted often had a long and arduous journey to establish themselves in the mundane functions of daily life.
As we tour the kitchen we are told of the Massachusetts Wenham Lake Ice Company. In 1844 the company opened on The Strand in London and placed a new block of ice in the window each day. The ice from the small lake near Boston was a sensation and soon Queen Victoria insisted on its exclusive use at Buckingham Palace. While in the dining room, the paramountcy of salt is discussed: “Salt is now so ubiquitous and cheap that we forget how intensely desirable it once was, but for much of history it drove men to the edges of the world. People have fought wars over it and been sold into slavery for it.”
Bryson’s affable tone skillfully weaves everyday items with a world view of history that never lacks momentum. As we move to the second floor we learn about the most dangerous part of the house: “one of the most hazardous environments anywhere: the stairs. No one knows exactly how dangerous the stairs are, because records are curiously deficient. Stairs rank as the second most common cause of accidental death, well behind car accidents…”
The book moves seamlessly from room to room as we are shown clues from our past and how we have progressed as a culture to enjoy the creature comforts we often take for granted. At Home is an accessible and often humorous story about cultural progress and is a world history class that no one should miss.