A comfortable home

I know, I know. I keep babbling about restricting myself to twelve books this year, that whole 12 in 12 thing, and then talking about the other books that I’ve read. Not surprisingly, it seems that I’m considerably better at making plans than following through on them.

So while I’m keeping to my major reading plan, I’m giving myself a break when the occasional pretty cover catches my eye.

Basically, I’m saying I’m committed, but have flings. With books. Whatever. This metaphor is hurting my brain.

Anyway, At Home is my first foray into Bill Bryson’s works, but it definitely won’t be my last. Seriously good book.

Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has fig­ured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture. (from Amazon)

The idea behind the book is absolutely fascinating. Honestly, I’d never thought about the marvelous innovations necessary to a modern kitchen or the wonders of the windowpane. (Which is odd—I’m endlessly curious about all manner of other things, but the things with which I live every day? Never even considered.) And while the subject is interesting enough in its own right to keep me reading, the way he tells the story is nearly as good as the topic. Bryson hits the interesting parts of each invention story, telling about the people behind all of the things we take for granted.

He begins by talking about the cultural advances that have allowed us to transition from subsistence living, struggling to satisfy our basic needs, to our current, extraordinarily comfortable, lives.

I’d never really considered our prioritization of comfort. If you’ve visited or read much about historical houses, you know that it’s a relatively recent obsession. The rocking chair that figures so prominently in my image of pioneer family life—the hearth and the knitting and all—wasn’t padded. Most dinner guests sat at benches, not in chairs; even the beds weren’t exactly the wonders of pillow-top luxury that is our normal. And while some of those changes have to do with advanced technical capabilities, many of them just reflect a difference of priority.

Bryson focuses quite a bit on the Victorian world as many of our modern comforts are directly related to advances made in the middle of the nineteenth century—and that makes sense. The nineteenth century was the era that mythologized the home (and, of course, animating spirit of the home, the Angel of the House) and as the public world was presented as harsher and dirtier (and literally was—in talking about our heating systems, Bryson quotes from a Sherlock Holmes story in which Sherlock lights a match to read a note in the smoggy streets of London. In the middle of the day. Wow.) the idea of the home was, in contrast, made into this perfect retreat of comfort.

I highly recommend this book. It’s absolutely not my normal fare (I read relatively few non-fiction titles) but it reads as compulsively as the most gripping novel. Good stuff.

Someone at The San Francisco Chronicle created this graphic with a few of the facts Bryson included. Because who doesn’t want to know about Louis XIII’s bathing habits and Victorian bedbugs?

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