2010, Books, Non-Fiction

At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010) by Bill Bryson

Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Bryson’s writing style and eat-up everything I’ve read by him. So i’m predisposed to like this book. But I must say that this is one of his lesser books and it feels like it’s a book at which a concept was created to fit content that was otherwise hard to sell, and that marriage just doesn’t work.

A short history of private life? Not really, no. More like a short history of English private life post-Middle Ages, with a focus on the 19th century more than any other century. The first problem with this book is that it is way more myopic than its title. Bryson barely acknowledges the world outside Europe and North America and he barely acknowledges the world of Europe before the Middle Ages. I don’t have a better subtitle, but I think the book needs a different one.

The other huge problem with the book is the concept: we enter each room and then veer off wherever Bryson wants. He basically wrote what he wanted to write and tried (not very well) to fit it into the concept of travelling through a house. I have watched BBC programs on the history of rooms – seriously – and I can tell you that they will tell you far more about the history of rooms than this book will. (Though it depends upon the room as some are quite detailed and others are just excuses to talk about something he wants to talk about.)

But I still really enjoyed the book. Why? Because, as usual, it is full of interesting facts I didn’t previously know. (Though I did encounter one or two I’ve encountered in other Bryson books.) And, of course, it’s funny, as all his books are. It’s extremely easy to read while being compelling and informative. He’s just really good at what he does, even when he doesn’t have a good concept.

With a different concept and a different subtitle I’d probably give it 8/10 instead of 6/10. I enjoyed it that much. But it really feels like he wrote something, didn’t know how to sell it to the public, and he (or someone else) came up with a silly idea of walking through his house, and then somebody came up with that subtitle which does it a great disservice.

Ah well.


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