I hit a bit of reading ennui these past two weeks, and I seemed too stuck to get out of it. It all started when I picked up Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life in the hopes of having a nice light read (this all started about two weeks ago.) It became anything but- more of a tedious slog.

To be fair to Mr. Bryson, I tend to love his books. I found both A Walk In the Woods and In a Sunburned Country both wonderful and hysterical.  I loved his random, slightly loopy style, and often when reading the books I would laugh out loud. This is why I chose At Home for this moment–I felt the need for something light and refreshing. The book itself wasn’t terrible, and at times it reads quite well and recovers some of Bryson’s usual humor and fun, but as a whole it was a big letdown. I think this is because I came into it with high expectations for humor, and also different expectations as to what the book would actually be about. Both were dashed in the process, and because of this my reading slogged along, badly. I had trouble finishing the book. I even emailed with Joseph to ask what to do about it. He kindly suggested I just not finish it and move on to another book, which was tempting, but I found myself with this psychological burden. I had to finish the book– just so I could get past it.

So the premise of Bryson’s book is to use a house (specifically his, an old rectory in England) as a gateway into looking into people’s private lives. Okay– I thought this sounded good. The book is broken down into chapters by room– The Hall, the kitchen, the bedrooms, etc… and in each chapter he gives a sort of  exposition on something related to the room (in the case of the Kitchen, he talks about the spice trade– in the case of bedroom he address both diseases and sex– in the case of the nursery, child mortality– etc). Most of his research centers on British homes of a considerable size (meaning comfortably middle-class and up— he’s not talking about crofter’s cottages here) with an occasional foray over to American great houses (Monticello, Mount Vernon, etc.) Along the way you get a jumbled history of everything, including toilets, cosmetics, brickworks, greenhouses, if it’s in a house, it is here.

Parts of the book are quite interesting and entertaining. The section on the Hall for example, was interesting. Bryson points out that it used to be that the hall was basically a house– everyone lived there, slept there, ate there- etc- few people had their own bedrooms in the medieval period– only the rich. So you would bed down in your Hall, with your servants, and dogs and whatever else- it was usually filthy and stank, but that is how you lived.  And when you think about it, the Hall existed in America in a humbler form– the log cabin (one big room- although Americans tended not to live with their livestock– just a guard dog or pet cat.)  I felt that in that chapter I learned something interesting and true to the form of the general book. The problem is that Bryson does not stay true to  form. In some of the other chapters like “The Drawing Room” he discusses architectural history– fine– but what about the Drawing room? What did people do in their drawing rooms? How did they furnish them? How come we do not use them anymore? In the section the Cellar he addresses building materials– what does that have to do with Cellars? Yes, we get how cellars kept food cool, but an exposition on perhaps the problems of preserving food, refrigeration, or oh heck, people’s use of cellars in America to escape tornadoes would have been more relevant.

I think what annoyed me so much about this book is not that it was badly written (it isn’t.) Or that it is a bit random (I am used to Bryson’s randomness– I like it)– it was that it was really inconsistent and I got no sense of what the main theme of the book was. For instance–in A Walk in the Woods Bryson, among other things, makes a plea for the saving of America’s natural wild lands. It is a love-letter to the wonders that make up the Appalachian Trail. In this book I get no sense of an overall purpose, and I think that is why this book seems so rudderless and hard for me to get through. It also was nowhere as funny as his other books.

All of this, of course, is just my personal opinion. I am a big Bryson fan, but I think this book is just not up to par with the others that I have read. But I did finish it and now I am moving onwards in the land of reading..

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

 

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