Wednesday, November 5, 2014


At Home. A short history of private life.  by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian vicarage in England and one day he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as found 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 the history of hygiene, the bedroom for an account of sex, death, and sleep, the kitchen for a discussion of nutrition and the spice trade, and so on, showing how each has figured in the evolution of private life. From architecture to electricity, from food preservation to epidemics, from crinolines to the cotton gin—and the brilliant, creative and often eccentric talents behind them—Bryson demonstrates that whatever happens in the world ends up in our houses.

For example, in 1983 a vine owner observed leaves “covered with galls from which sprang insects of a kind he had not seen before.” He was the “first in Europe to suffer from an infestation of grape phylloxera, a tiny aphid, that would shortly devastate the European wine industry.”  The result in France in 1952 was wine growers in southern France finding their vines dying. “Because the insects infested the roots, the first sign of mortal illness was the first sign of anything. Farmers couldn’t dig up the roots to see if aphids were present without killing the vines, so they just had to wait and hope. Forty percent of France’s vines were killed in fifteen years. Eighty percent were ‘reconstituted’ through the grafting on of American roots.”  “It is thanks to American roots that French wines still exist.”

And here is an example of the delightful melding of historical facts by Mr. Bryson: “Phylloxera aphids from the New World had almost certainly reached Europe before, but would have arrived as little corpses, unable to survive the long sea voyage. The introduction of fast steamships at sea and even faster trains on land meant that the little pests could arrive refreshed and ready to conquer new territory.”

To further quote the back cover of my large print library copy:  Bryson’s wit and sheer prose fluency make At Home one of the most entertaining books about private life ever written.

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