History hits close to Home

In _At Home_, Bryson tells the history behind every room of his house. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Operations Manager) In _At Home_, Bryson tells the history behind every room of his house. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Operations Manager)

Have you ever gotten a fountain drink from Carnegie Mellon Café and wondered: Who first thought of putting cubes of ice in a drink, anyway? Or perhaps you’ve pondered the history of fireplaces. Even if you haven’t, Bill Bryson has, and he answers these questions and many more in his nonfiction book At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

Inspired by his home, an English rectory built in the late 19th century, At Home takes readers through a tour of Bryson’s house and, chapter by chapter, discusses the history of each room. In the process, Bryson touches upon 10,000 years of history, from the world’s first farmers to Victorian childhoods and everything in between.

And “everything in between” is no exaggeration — Bryson discusses the origin of corn (did you know that evidence points to the Mayans producing genetically engineered corn?), the history of stairs (Peter Nicholson defined several mathematical principles of stairs in the early 19th century), and the importance of bats, among a dizzying array of other topics. But herein lies the book’s main flaw: Bryson enthusiastically approaches so many different subjects that all the names, dates, and places that he eagerly discusses can overwhelm the reader. This is not a book to read all in one sitting — it has too much information for one to digest at once.

Thankfully, Bryson’s conversational and approachable tone saves the book from being exhaustingly dense or incomprehensible. Reading At Home is akin to sitting with your charming British uncle and chatting about history over a cup of tea. As Bryson takes his readers on a stroll down the long and winding road of time, he enjoys pointing out history’s quirks, mysteries, and funny coincidences.

Some chapters, admittedly, are not as strong as others. “The Stairs,” which focuses on the types of paint in the Victorian era, is about as interesting as it sounds — which is to say, not very — and reading about rats in “The Study” makes one feel a bit queasy. Bryson succeeds most when discussing British social history, for example when he discusses the Great Exhibition of 1851 or the relationships between servants and their employers in the late 19th century.

Ultimately, At Home is a well-researched, artfully crafted book that has Bryson’s obvious passion for history shining out of every page. While dizzying in its expansiveness, At Home’s wide array of topics guarantees that there is something in the book that interests everyone. Bryson’s enthusiasm and approachable tone will help pique the curiosity of readers, and hopefully inspire them to delve further into the more obscure and fascinating parts of history.