Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Jun 29th, 2020, 4:46 pm

TITLE: At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Special Illustrated Edition
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson
GENRE: Non-Fiction > History
RATING: ★★★★★


Description: In At Home, Bill Bryson applies the same irrepressible curiosity, irresistible wit, stylish prose and masterful storytelling that made A Short History of Nearly Everything one of the most lauded books of the last decade, and delivers one of the most entertaining and illuminating books ever written about the history of the way we live.

Review: When I choose at random this New York Times bestseller I must confess I was not expecting to be as mesmerized as I finally was. In these times of confinement, I thought the topic of the home (as we were secluded while I read it) could be somehow interesting enough to give it a go although I feared it could make me feel a bit claustrophobic. Actually, it would be the opposite feeling you will surely get by traveling not only through the different parts of the author’s home but also traveling all around the world and throughout history. At Home was the perfect reading to overcome the intensity of the confinement period.
“Houses are really quite odd things. They have almost no universally defining qualities: they can be of practically any shape, incorporate virtually any material, be of almost any size. Yet wherever we go in the world we know houses and recognize domesticity the moment we see them.”

There are so many topics, related somehow to the home, covered in this book that I would be surprised if you already knew 50% of the stories. Most of my reactions could be summarized as: “I can’t believe I didn’t know that” or “I knew that fact but I didn’t know that other thing that seems even more relevant.”

I was also surprised to discover that many of the people mentioned who achieved quite a lot (historically speaking) were not what we would call experts in their fields. And secondary characters who made great discoveries possible are not even remembered nowadays. I do not want to spoil the book for you so I will only mention a few cases that caught my eye. For example, I am sure you will be familiar with a certain Thomas Edison but do you know the actual person who made electricity happen in a street first of them all? He was a Scotsman, Mr Swan, who made a public exhibition of his electrical system in New Castle. He even illuminated the house of a man with a certain surname that may sound familiar, Lord Kelvin. Another fantastic story is that of Graham Bell’s helper on the invention of the telephone. What a life to have lived although, do you even know who I am talking about? Just check him out on chapter 10 dedicated to “The passage.”

Could you also imagine having hired a hermit to live in your garden just for fun or for decorative purposes? Some rich people back in the day did so but it didn’t quite work out as many of their insane eccentricities. But some habits you would deem nowadays as for-the-rich-only were shocking back then as the abundance of lobster:
“Part of the reason people could eat so well was that many foods that we now think of as delicacies were plenteous then. Lobsters bred in such abundance around Britain’s coastline that they were fed to prisoners and orphans or ground up for fertilizer; servants sought written agreements from their employers that they would not be served lobster more than twice a week.”

The thing is that this book is not a mere compendium of dates about when every item was invented but the book is presented to us as a collection of historic stories. Even if the language may get a bit technical in some cases (ex. Starkly unfathomable), the text is mostly beautifully written in a simple but entertaining way. You will also get multiple references to other interesting old books on furniture, cooking, hosting a party… with facts that will blow up your mind and will make you reflect on how much some basic things have changed and vastly improved. And in this special illustrated edition lovely pictures and illustrations are included making the book even more appealing.

I would recommend to read this book one or perhaps two chapters at a time. Even if the topics are fun and varied (cooking, architecture, technology, science, business, the rich and the poor…) it may seem a bit intense to absorb it all in one go.

From the introduction, it made me feel as if I were moving into a former English rectory with the author in the English countryside. Suddenly a secret door. Seeing ordinary things from a different angle. While I was living in England, I observed these ancient churches with old cemeteries around them but surely I had never thought about how many souls had been buried under that limited piece of land; so much so, that changed the landscape in such bumpy terrain. This book made me think about this item - and much more. The author considers the extraordinary but also the ordinary things in life making them special.

If for whatever reason you have some free time please do not hesitate and enjoy this entertaining book. Traveling from my sofa is one of the aspects of reading I love the most and At Home: A Short History of Private Life could be the ultimate boarding pass you could enjoy. No queues, no fuss, just recline your seat and take off.
“If you had to summarize it in a sentence, you could say that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly.”
Jun 29th, 2020, 4:46 pm