‘At Home’ by Bill Bryson

Recently on a training tour through the Windsor Public Library, a fellow volunteer recruit commented, with a bit of annoyed confusion, that the Bill Bryson books were in  Non-Fiction. I suspect she was hoping to point out an error! She was amazed to realize that many of his books were about Travel and should be where they were. She had always found them so hugely entertaining, she had expected to find them in Fiction!

‘At Home’ is a short history of private life. If you are a history, etymology, or trivia junkie, this book is for you. Bryson found himself living in a large Victorian parsonage in England and decided to write a book about how people slowly got comfortable. He uses the rooms of a house as an outline to describe how everything from the flush toilet to household electricity came to be. Although I missed the laugh-out-loud humour of his travel books such as ‘A Walk in the Woods’, this is a light hearted approachable sort of history which Bryson is known for. And many of the tangents he goes off on leave you wondering “where did he ever learn about this stuff?” There is a vast impressive bibliography at the end of the book, so clearly he did his research.

The bathroom is an opportunity to talk about hygiene, the garden about lawn mowers, the kitchen about nutrition,  the nursery about children, the bedroom about sex, etc.  Did you know that US became more powerful than Canada because of the Erie Canal? Forks were invented with two tines and because they were so dangerous, they were improved to have only four. The most perilous part of the home is not the bathtub, the knives in the kitchen, or the fuse box, but the stairs! Some of his discoveries are surprising – the average kitchen cloth houses way more bacteria than the toilet seat!

Some of the chapters left me wondering why there would be say, a discussion of the Eiffel Tower in The Passage chapter, or a discussion of mice and mousetraps in The Study. But I can forgive Bryson for these tangents. His book is entertaining and educational. It’s also totally unnecessary to read this book from cover to cover. By all means, keep it in The Bathroom or The Bedroom and read random chapters out of order.

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