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

February 10, 2011

Bryson made a name for himself as a travel writer, so there’s a touch of irony in the fact that this latest book is about his house in England. Or it might be more accurate to say that his house is the starting point for a journey through a world of mental ephemera. Bryson goes room to room, using the rooms and the everyday objects that furnish them as jumping off points to talk about…well, pretty much whatever Bryson wants to talk about. The history of salt? How we got to having a second floor? How wallpaper is made? The great architects of England? A brief history of silverware? Wigs?

What is this book about? It’s about how we live, in a way. About the things we take for granted. Things we contact every day but probably know very little about. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson took an absurd amount of information and tried to boil it down into a somewhat clean and coherent narrative. In At Home, he does the exact opposite—he takes the minutiae of everyday life and explodes it into a loosely linked mess of tangents and trivia. This lack of organization sounds like criticism, and it kind of is, but it is saved by Bryson’s skill as a writer, his ability to make anything interesting. As in his other books, Bryson’s dry sense of humor really shines when he is describing people—the founding fathers of the United States or some long-forgotten architect—and their many quirks.

To be honest, I remember very little of the content of this book. It’s brain candy, much of it very interesting but little of it important. Still, it’s very sweet brain candy.

 

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