Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Just finished reading...

...Bill Bryson's fascinating AT HOME: A SHORT HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE.

AT HOME is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through some far-flung ideas, historical moments, and the people who made them happen. Bryson and his family live in a Victorian-era C of E rectory in Norfolk. After a recent leak from the roof prompted him to climb into the attic to locate the source of the drip, Bryson discovered a secret door in an exterior wall, not visible from anywhere outside the house; the door leads to a tiny lookout between gables. This piqued his curiosity: why was this built, how was it used? He begins pondering the hows and whys of not only his home, but of homes in general. How did we end up with the kinds of dwellings we live in now? And what of all the myriad things we surround ourselves with in our homes? Where did they come from? Why are they here? He says, “Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two. Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five? There must be reasons for these things. Dressing, I wondered why all my suit jackets have a row of pointless buttons on every sleeve. I heard a reference on the radio to someone paying for room and board, and realized that when people talk about room and board, I have no idea what the board is that they are talking about. Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me.”

So with a bottomless sense of curiosity and a brilliant mind for finding patterns in humanity, he goes off in search of answers to these and even more interesting and perplexing questions. And along the way, what started out in the home, branches out, far, far out, into fantastic stories, facts and figures of what life was like and how it transformed into the modern world we know today. Far from dry and academic, this is a fresh and vital book, and Bryson makes every story, every fact and figure, every explanation utterly personal and immediate. And the world he uncovers is a mind-boggling one—I was constantly in awe that any living person survived such a deplorable, filthy, ignorant world. It makes me thankful for the technology we have but it also makes me think that in another two hundred years, people will surely look back and ask, as I did, “How did any living person survive such a deplorable, filthy and ignorant world?”

Recommend? Oh yes, very much so. It is an absolutely fascinating read.

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