Bill Bryson’s earlier A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) wouldn’t seem to have left much to cover in a companion volume, as this book’s subtitle implies. Yet his sense of wonderment and his wry sensibility imbue even the most mundane subjects with revelation, as his tour through each room of his house (originally a Victorian parsonage) illuminates various dimensions of home, privacy and domesticity. “If you had to summarize it in a sentence, you could say that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly,” he writes. Always a companionable guide, Bryson understands that the way to make history come alive is to focus on people, individuals as well as cultures, rather than disembodied ideas, inventions or theories of progress. This is a book for readers who will find it fascinating to learn that Thomas Jefferson is “the father of the American French fry.”
How does the book compare with A Short History of Nearly Everything?
It is similar in that it aims to cover a big subject and a lot of history in a single volume, but different in that it is much less technical. A Short History of Nearly Everything was about things that most of us don’t know much about at all—atomic particles, the structure of the universe and that sort of thing—whereas At Home is about features of daily life that we are all familiar with but tend to take for granted. The idea is that the history behind everyday objects is often more interesting and surprising than you might think.
What was the biggest revelation you made while researching this book?
That everything that happens in the world at large—whatever is discovered or fought over or invented—eventually ends up in our houses in one way or another.
How did the Erie Canal and Eiffel Tower make it into a book about houses?
Well, the Erie Canal is there because it illustrates the unsung importance of building materials—not a matter that often attracts much attention to be sure. The Erie Canal completely changed the course of history for North America—without it, the United States might today consist of just a few Eastern states, with Canada as the continent’s dominant power—and all because an unlikely American hero named Canvass White figured out a way to make a waterproof cement.
The Eiffel Tower has a relevance to building materials, too, as well as to the history of design and engineering, but its fundamental reason for being in the book is to illustrate just how staggeringly wealthy Americans had become by the late 19th century. In the very year that the Eiffel Tower was rising in Paris, a member of the Vanderbilt family was actually spending more money, and employing more workmen, building a house for himself and his mother. Think of that: Americans were now spending more on individual homes than whole, rich countries were spending on national monuments.
You end the book on this note: “The greatest possible irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither. But that of course would be another book.” Do you have any intention of writing that other book?
I really hope it won’t be necessary for anybody to write that book, though I am probably being optimistic. As for myself, I am not quite sure what I would like to do next. In any case, I have promised my dear, long-suffering wife that for most of the rest of this year I will follow her around the garden with a wheelbarrow.
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At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Doubleday / October / 9780767919388 / $28.95
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010