At Home: A Short History of Private Life

I just read the most delightful book full of all kinds of things I didn’t know I was interested in.

The book in question is At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. I’ve been meaning to read this for a really long time and I was completely validated. I know that I will be on the hunt for more Bill Bryson in the very near future.

On a personal note, I feel like having read a good first book of the New Year is a good reading omen. Last year, my first book was The Prague Cemetery which I never did get into and since the resulting reading year was kind of a patchy one…it seemed connected. Choose your first book of the New Year with care!

Right. So At Home.

After putting together A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson was looking to write about something a little closer to home. After looking around his own home he decided that he’d found his subject matter and what follows is a truly mesmerizing, incredibly fascinating look at human history at home, told in, what I assume is, Bryson’s trademark tongue-in-cheek manner.

Have you ever wondered why all blazers have that row of 4 buttons that have no purpose? Spent significant amount of time thinking about the meaning behind the term room and board? Laughed with your friends about the name Thomas Crapper, inventor of the toilet?

You probably haven’t. But once you start reading it, you might wonder that these things never crossed your mind. Also? Thomas Crapper isn’t the reason a toilet is sometimes called a crapper, it’s just one of those happy coincidences.

Apparently history is full of things like that.

It amazed me to see how many people who had a significant impact on improving, or at least changing, the way people lived are completely forgotten about. Another thing I really appreciated about Bryson’s handling of the material was his perspective on things. Far from looking down on our ancestors for not realizing that contaminating drinking water with human waste would make people very, very sick, Bryson reminds us that they just didn’t know any better. He was also really good at debunking some of the myths and stories we’ve all just assumed to be true at one time or another.

I will give you this word of warning should you choose to embark on this journey through human history (and you should): beware the chapter called The Study. It ended up being the last chapter I had energy for before I went to bed and I ended up wide awake all night, imagining all the different creatures that could be crawling on my body, in my bed and perhaps even be lurking in my toilet, waiting to attack me whenever I ended up needing to avail myself of it’s services.