Perhaps there is still a little time left in 2010 for footballing references.
Sometime during the 1998 World Cup, before France had won that instalment if memory serves right, a journalist asked French defender Bixente Lizarazu about how it felt to play alongside maestro Zinedine Zidane.
Lizarazu encapsulated most of France’s game plan for that tournament into one sentence: “When we don’t know what to do, we just give (the ball) to Zizou and he works something out.”
Likewise it is easy to imagine the conversations Bill Bryson has with his publishers. Someone from the establishment sits across the table from Bryson and asks him what he is thinking of writing about next. Bryson—spectacled, bearded, gruff yet adorably corpulent in that humour-writer way— looks around, maybe out of a window, and thinks for a while. And then he says that he will write a book about toilets, or salt and pepper shakers. The publisher agrees and extends a draft contract. When you don’t know what to do or who to publish, you just give a contract to Bryson.
Bryson’s canon is long and diverse. He has written about travelling all over the world, especially in his beloved Britain and the US. He has written tomes on language, a slim but amusing biography of Shakespeare, a sprawling best-seller on science, a memoir and now this, At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
While all his previous books had some form of theme cementing the chapters, At Home is his most whimsical yet. The book is simultaneously both about nothing in particular, and about everything in general.
It all begins when Bryson notices a mysterious door in the attic of his most recent home in Norfolk in England. He opens it to discover a table-top size terrace right on top of his house offering spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. But why would anyone build a terrace, of any size but especially of that size, on top of his house? Bryson’s mind begins to wander: “Now as I stood on the roof of my house, taking in this unexpected view, it struck me how...that that’s what history really is: masses of people doing ordinary things. Even Einstein will have spent large parts of his life thinking about his holidays or new hammock or how dainty was the ankle on the young lady alighting from the tram across the street....” Bryson decides that his restless mind must correct this injustice: “So I thought it might be interesting, for the length of a book, to consider the ordinary things in life, to notice them for once and treat them as if they are important, too.”
And how lucky we are for it.
On the road: One of the subjects Bryson takes up extensively is the pleasures of the English countryside. Graham Barclay / Bloomberg
What Bryson proceeds to do is traverse through his home, one room or space at a time, and take us on a whirlwind historical tour of inventors, architects, discoveries and—most temptingly for Bryson—coincidences that determined the way those spaces are made and lived in. Why do we have salt and pepper shakers on our table? Why those two condiments and nothing else? Why do we say “make a bed” when really the bed is there in our bedroom all along? And speaking of the kitchen, did you know that it was not till 1845 that cookbooks had precise measures for cooking times and quantities? “Until almost the middle of the century instructions in cookery books were always wonderfully imprecise, calling merely for ‘some flour’ or ‘enough milk’. What changed all that was a revolutionary book by a shy and all accounts sweet-natured poet in Kent named Eliza Acton.”
In terms of tonality, that two-line passage encapsulates the entire book. Bryson enters a room, wonders why we do many things in that room the way we do them. And then lets his penchant for research and historical minutiae take over. Even though At Home never devolves, or rises into scholarly treatise, it packs a tremendous amount of information and data. So much so that in the hands of a writer with less skill, At Home could have become boring. Bryson too struggles sometimes to cope with his own excitement at having wheedled some nugget of trivia from an old book or manuscript. Hardly a page goes by when he is not finding someone or something “revolutionary” or “unfortunately forgotten by the sands of time”. If a reader tries to keep track of all the themes and digressions, At Home will wear one out quickly. Fans might recall experiencing this while reading Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a book of limited scope, but somehow made to work purely through the author’s good writing.
At Home should be seen less as a book and more as a collection of juicy, informative essays on domestic history. Trivia buffs will find plenty to note down and then google (indeed I highly recommend having Google and Wikipedia within arm’s length while reading the book). Hard-core history buffs could use the chapters as respite from more tedious tasks.
Most of all, the book is meant for readers who, like the author, are endlessly curious. At the end of the book, you will struggle to cope with all the information and the enlightenment. But you will never look at your home, your kitchen, your flushing toilet or your salt and pepper shakers the same way again.
Aren’t you glad Bryson found that terrace, behind that door, in his attic, in his home, in Norfolk?