Bill Bryson’s At Home

I just finished Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

I had read it about a year ago when it was released in hardcover, and I enjoyed it so much I re-read it when it was just released in paperback.

So much of history ends up littered on the floor of our homes (figuratively, that is.) Bryson wanders room by room through his own house and asks why things are the way they are where he lives.

Why do we keep salt and pepper on our tables, instead of any of the other of hundreds of available spices? Bryson writes: “I can tell you at once that nothing you touch today will have more bloodshed, suffering, and woe attached to it than the innocuous twin pillars of your salt and pepper set.”

Why are bricks so difficult to make? “Perhaps the greatest demonstration of the difficulty of making bricks–or possibly the greatest demonstration of single-minded futility–was in the 1810s when Sydney Smith, the well-known wit and cleric, decided to make his own bricks for the rectory he was building for himself at Foston le Clay in Yorkshire. He was said to have unsuccessfully fired 150,000 bricks before finally conceding that he probably wasn’t going to get the hang of it.”

Why was personal hygiene so out of favor in medieval Christendom? “When Thomas a Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, died in 1170, those who laid him out noted approvingly that his undergarments were ‘seething with lice.'”

Bryson fills his book with countless facts and anecdotes illustrating the world inside our domiciles. With rich history informing every object and room we occupy, this book brings a new meaning to the phrase, “There’s no place like home.”

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