I could read Bill Bryson all day. Who couldn’t? It’s like having a good chat at the pub with a life-long mate, who happens to be strangely well-informed and articulate.
Bryson’s writing tends to meander off into strange specificities and peculiarities; an engaging collection of facts told in a jovial way. At Home is no different: it is through-and-through Bryson.
Loosely set as Bryson walks through his home, a former parsonage in the English countryside, each chapter deals with a different room and how that room has shaped by – and been shaped – the private life of humans.
“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”
As is inevitable for Bryson, a large part ofthe tale is not just of the home and of humans, but of America and England. Development in the home is often (rightly) framed within greater geopolitical shifts (and vice-versa, in the case of the nineteenth learned clergy he spends time extolling at the beginning).
Each room gives us a glimpse of how we got there, and how we changed along the day – including in our diets.
“One consequential change is that people used to get most of their calories at breakfast and midday, with only the evening top-up at suppertime. Now those intakes are almost exactly reversed. Most of us consume the bulk–a sadly appropriate word here–of our calories in the evening and take them to bed with us, a practice that doesn’t do any good at all.”
At Home has a lot going for it, but it did take me a while to read. The narrative structure works well as a way of bringing the facts together, but it did mean that it lacked a collective theme (except in the very broadest sense). At times, you have the sense that you were being led taken on a very long walk for no reason other than the very long walk.
However, each chapter stands on its own. It can easily be set aside and enjoyed in bite-sized chunks.
Approached with that in mind, it may well have been a more enjoyable read – just take your time and stroll through the house slowly.