Having read and thoroughly enjoyed (overview here) his previous book, A Short History of the Universe, I could not resist purchasing At Home, A Short History of Private Life, the newest book from Bill Bryson. I have become a fan of Bryson. I was unfamiliar with his writing until recently as his career has mostly focused on travel books. Just like his previous book, short is a deceptive title as this book is quite long. To be honest, I was just slightly disappointed by this book. I had also read Bryson’s history of Shakespeare and thoroughly enjoyed it as well. He is a wonderful writer but I would not recommend you read this book first if you are new to his material. I really like books on history and I think a love of history would be a strong requirement to enjoy the unique approach this book takes to it.
The research for this book does not seem new but the way Bryson syncretizes it into “a history of private life” and makes a wide collection of stories seemingly fit together keeps it interesting. Bryson devotes almost every chapter to a room in his Victorian house in England. He then considers why the room is the way it is and what preceded it. It makes for a rambling view of historical events but Bryson with his wit and insight can make it interesting in a way no history professor ever could. Obviously it is not a deeply philosophical treatment but rather a collection of interesting stories, mostly from Britain and a few from America, which somehow end up affecting the design of the modern home.
This book has much to teach the reader. You will learn how primitive medical practice was before the twentieth century. For example, virtually all doctors were men, and it was not considered proper for men to examine a woman’s private parts. A gynecologist named James Platt White was expelled from practice for allowing his students to observe a woman giving birth, even though the woman had given them permission. Nor did doctors seem to understand much about germ theory. Bryson writes that when American President James Abram Garfield was shot in 1881, he wasn’t killed by the bullet but by doctors “sticking their unwashed fingers in the wound.”
No doubt Bryson has a tendency towards superlatives and reductionism. Many things that singularly “changed the world”, according to Bryson, are more than likely more complicated than the book allows.
I really like this book with the above mentioned caveats. History, more than anything else, informs us as to how we got where we are. This book does this in regards to areas of our lives we probably take for granted. It successfully connects the dots of progress that have brought us to our current culture and, as Bryson puts is, “endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness.”