For the price of a good bottle of wine, you can gift your holiday hosts and hostesses with a book they won’t be able to put down. But careful, because Bill Bryson is probably a more charming party guest than you can ever hope to be.
I will read anything Bill Bryson has written. I find his snipe-flights into obscure facts both hilarious and informative. His prose is practically trademarked by these seemingly off-topic bits that are nearly always at least glancingly relevant to his point. In At Home, his point is the development of the modern Anglo-American dwelling from the dawn of time until about 1910. Whether he’s discussing sub-atomic particles or boot-blacking, he’s going to get you back to the nursery, library or kitchen in which he began the chapter. He also really, really likes adverbs (opining, for instance, that Abe Lincoln’s corncob bed must have been “crunchily noisy.”) He is encyclopedic, witty and delights in irony.
At Home explores, exhaustively, room by room and over centuries, the English parsonage in which he lives. I often laughed out loud as I learned about medieval farming; how people powdered their wigs; how Jacobean fashioistas ate with long-handled spoons so as not to dribble on their collars; and the inciting incident, in 1858, that compelled London to install sewers—dubbed The Great Stink. At Home is cheerfully cluttered with English eccentrics, entomology, Etymology, factoids and rambling, charming-to-alarming stories. You’ll learn, for instance, how the Victorians founded both the Society for the Rescue of Boys Not Yet Convicted of Any Criminal Offence, as well as the Society for Promoting Window Gardening Amongst the Working Classes of Westminster. There is a chemist who discovered eight elements but, because of his unfortunate habit of tasting them, poisoned himself; Isaac Ware, who was snatched from a miserable life as a chimney sweep to become an architectural thinker and tastemaker; and the famous designer of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, who died in an asylum—set within grounds that he himself had designed.
My only quibble is that there are not enough stories of women; the few females who move through it are memorable and portrayed with feeling, but there aren’t enough of them (probably because not enough is known about them). This is fundamentally a book about the house as a technological advancement and not domesticity per se, and Bryson asks a terrific question in the end: Can the level of comfort we have achieved in England and America be globally sustainable in the coming century?