In an A.V. Club interview earlier this year, bestselling author Mary Roach explained why she models herself after Bill Bryson: “He has an incredible ability to be both entertaining and enlightening.” As if on cue, Bryson has released a second book in what seems, happily, to be an emerging “Short History” series—volumes that are short only in the sense that they make no attempt at exhaustive coverage of topics that are far too large for any one book. At Home: A Short History Of Private Life goes room by room through the author’s house, an Anglican rectory built in 1851, to examine the surprisingly haphazard relationship between the necessities of living and the way we’ve come to arrange our habitations. And like A Short History Of Nearly Everything, its lasting impression is the author’s delightful, boundless curiosity. Readers will learn much about the history of living in houses, but if they only remember how wonderful it is to be in Bryson’s company, that would be enough of a salutary lesson.
A book on houses desperately needs focus, since the topic ranges throughout human history. Appropriately, Bryson finds it right where he lives. Beginning with 1850, when the Crystal Palace was improbably erected in London’s Hyde Park as an immense, temporary monument to English architectural skills, he strays from his Victorian setting only to meditate on contingencies behind each room and its prescribed activities. Ranging about as far as the Roman withdrawal from Britain in time, and mostly around Western Europe in space, Bryson has plenty of leisure to digress into various mysteries and infelicities of what came to be typical arrangements. In the kitchen, for example, he notes the shockingly immense amounts of food consumed by 19th-century people, as recorded in diaries of the time. In the dining room, he reveals that salt and pepper containers were originally joined in serving sets by a third receptacle, whose purpose remains a matter of utter conjecture today. And in the scullery, where the servant girls did the washing-up, he proffers the statistic that one in three women in 1851 London between the ages of 15 and 25 was a servant, and another one in three was a prostitute.
Modern life has reduced the number of specific rooms in typical houses—no more dressing rooms or drawing rooms, precious few libraries—but what fascinates Bryson is that people ever felt these activities benefited from having their own designated spaces. The most revealing chapters of this uncommonly enlightening book are those describing rooms now all but invisible: the hall (once the house’s only room), passage, attic, even the fusebox, which offers an opportunity to discourse on domestic electrification. The best non-fiction illuminates what we found impossible to see without it, and perhaps more so than any of his other wonderful books, At Home proves that Bryson writes some of the very best.