A Short History of Life at Home

February 2, 2012

Are you looking for a nice, slow read to fill your evenings this February? Well, do I have a treasure for you.

We tend to skim-read through stuff without the lingering pleasure of allowing a well-constructed sentence, filled with juicy elements, to land on our skin and shimmy up our spines. Not all writing is meant for deep reading. I admit to retweeting links to articles I’ve not read in depth. But writers such as Bill Bryson deserve our attention head-on. His brilliant lyricism and command of the English language made me want his latest book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, simply not to end.

Using each room in his own home, once a rectory built in 1851, as a point of reference, he takes his readers on a journey into the past. Sometimes with an architectural focus, sometimes with a societal one, Bryson never loses sight of how technological innovation has impacted us to this day. From the pre-Civil War in America to Victoria England to today, we get to tramp alongside the author as he unearths historical facts that would make Wikipedia green with envy.

Consider his description of the German schoolteacher Johann Philipp Reis whose prototype telephone came fifteen years before Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent. The phone never worked and here’s why:

[I]t was later discovered that when the contact points on Reis’s device became fouled with dust or dirt, they were able to transmit speech with starling fidelity. Unfortunately, Reis, with Teutonic punctiliousness, had always kept his equipment impeccably shiny and clean, and so went to his grave never knowing how close he had come to producing a working instrument.

His description of bathroom habits, a relatively new discovery for mankind, is a real hoot, not to mention how the role of the hallway has changed from gathering space to a cheerless, empty one on your way to somewhere else.

As my dad, who kindly gave me the book, so rightly said: “It’s a book so full of information, you have to put it down after fifteen pages to simply digest it all.” So true. But you’ll want to pick it right back up again the next day to explore the next cavern of human existence and the house that has turned into our home.

What good reads would you suggest?

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