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Book: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

March 28, 2011

This was my latest audiobook. It was also my first Bill Bryson — won’t be the last! Although I have to say, it was probably not the best choice for a commute book (at least, not for me). There is no linear structure — you literally could start reading anywhere and catch yourself up in a matter of minutes, since it is one long thought-jump to another as Bryson goes through the house, exploring in a series of curiosity-driven leaps from one thing to another, the histories of many of our household goods and things that surround us.

So, it wasn’t exactly plot-driven, and for my commute I’m learning that I like to have a plot to look forward to, something to keep me ‘hooked.’ That said, this certainly was fun and interesting.

Loosely using his old-rectory home in England as the jumping-off point, Bryson goes through the house room by room and vaguely uses each room as a framework for a rambling spew of quirky facts and curiosities.

He covers such questions as:

* Why do forks have four tines?
* Why do we use salt and pepper, and not, say, cinnamon and cardamom?
* What did people used to use for mattresses?
* What’s the history of the toilet? (this bit almost made me heave, seriously. Yuck.)
* Why do houses look like they do?
* Why was a dining room invented?

Etc. Actually his facts were much more interesting than my list of questions suggest, but you get the idea. Ramble ramble ramble, all through the house with one interesting story after another.

I liked this a lot and it was really entertaining, although I think if I pick up another Bryson (I’ve always wanted to read A Walk In The Woods) I think I’ll do the paper version and leave audio to the plot-driven novels.

My next audiobook is The Prestige — ooh, magicians!

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2011 9:51 am

    I’ve not read Bryson yet but I mean to sometime. This sounds like fun.

  2. trapunto permalink
    March 28, 2011 1:37 pm

    Some of the first chapters of this book were posted as articles in the Guardian a while back; I found a link to them in a blog. The toilet chapter was one of them. I was not as excited as I was about some of Bill Bryson’s books, but that was probably partly sour grapes about not getting to live in an English rectory!

    I recently learned to appreciate the technology of the modern toilet in a whole new way. In our basement there is a suspiciously shoddy, recently-added half bath. We don’t use it. One night a horrible sewer stink permeated the whole house. We honestly thought there had been a huge accident at the sewage treatment plant. We went outside to check, but no, the smell was only inside. It had traveled clear upstairs, into every room. Eventually we traced it to the basement, where it was powerful enough to make my husband retch. What had happened was: because we keep a dehumidifier running in the basement, and since we never replenish the water level by flushing, the water seal in the u-bend of the basement toilet had evaporated, so the toilet was burping out sewer gas. –Flushed the toilet, opened all the windows and got fans running, problem solved.

    • March 29, 2011 8:11 am

      Oh wow. That’s kind of a horrible story, but it had a much better ending than I had anticipated. Thank goodness it is all better now. Yuck. Yeah, that chapter was really horrifying. London in the mid 1800s was not a nice place to walk around in. Yuck.

  3. March 28, 2011 6:39 pm

    This was one of my favorite reads last year and is a book I can see dipping into again in the future. I would not have wanted to try it on audio though, so I understand the areas in which it didn’t quite do it for you (at least as far as narrative structure goes). It also wouldn’t have worked for me on audio because my experience reading it is that I constantly found myself stopping and rereading sections aloud to my wife.

    • March 29, 2011 8:12 am

      I actually totally enjoyed the book, but it wasn’t the best choice for a commute companion. However, I think it would have been really fun to read. I can totally see how you would want to stop and read parts aloud!!

  4. March 31, 2011 9:11 am

    i have never heard of bill bryson but this sounds intriguing.

    im excited for your review of the prestige. ive never read that one but kinda want to.

    • March 31, 2011 2:02 pm

      So far, so good. It’s a little slow but starting to pick up, and the mystery is deepening. I liked the Bryson book — it would be a fun one to just have around the house to pick up and read every now and again for fun facts.

  5. April 12, 2011 9:40 am

    I’m at the Plum Room chapter right now. I’m really enjoying this book. I loved “In a Sundburned Country,” and “A Walk in the Woods” but my favorite is “Mother Toungue.” I read this while finishing a hated French minor–this book made me feel so much better about speaking English! Some of Bryson’s books aren’t as interesting/well written, but this one is a winner.
    Just started reading your blog this week–really enjoying your book reviews!

    • April 14, 2011 10:46 am

      Sorry I didn’t see your comment until just now! I can’t wait to read more Bryson. I really liked this one. I will check out Mother Tongue for sure!

  6. October 4, 2011 9:46 am

    A Walk in the Woods is seriously good, though it begins better than it ends. I read it on the bus and laughed out loud, much to the delight and consternation of my fellow travelers. Highly recommended!

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