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At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson
available in paperback,
and as an e-book for Kindle
note: this review is of the Kindle edition
While reading Bill Bryson's copiously informative and endlessly entertaining history of private life, everything around the house took on added meaning. I didn't really want to start my day reflecting on the history of bedrooms, beds, bedbugs and mites, flush toilets, mice and rats, the importance of bats, running hot water, mirrors, windows, chests-of-drawers, toothpaste tubes, toiletries, dining rooms, kitchens, or fuels. But I couldn't help it. Bryson has gone to great lengths digging up the dirt on these and dozens of other topics related in one way or another to homes from Skara Brae to Mount Vernon, from ancient Rome to modern England and the USA.
Bryson takes the reader from one end of the house to the other, providing along the way the history of mundane things and making them much more interesting than the usual historical fare of politics, religion, and tedious detailed descriptions of famous military battles. History, he says, mostly is "masses of people doing ordinary things." Bryson's genius is in making people doing ordinary things seem extraordinary and worthy of our attention. From the opening chapter's description of the design and building of the Crystal Palace (Hyde Park, London, 1850) to his final reflection on the irony of a people's endless quest for comfort possibly leading to a world without any, Bryson never fails to be interesting, humorous, and informative, often in a single sentence. One example: "No one, other that perhaps the Luftwaffe, has done more to change the look of London than John Nash did over the next thirty years." Nash was an architect who died in 1835.
Of course, Bryson can't avoid politics altogether, but he sticks to such things as the effect of taxes on commerce and comfort (which should please Republicans and anarchists) and the need for government protection of antiquities from plundering and destruction (which should please the Democrats and socialists).
(A word of clarification: by "masses of people doing ordinary things" Bryson does not mean just peasants, farmers, servants, or working class people going through their daily routines. The rich and titled, the owners of slaves and the controllers of servants and workers are people, too. Their daily lives are as much a part of Bryson's story as are the lives of the people that the gentry and well-heeled often abused and mistreated. "Masses of people" is an all-inclusive term, denoting anyone from a king or queen or president of the US all the way up to an inventor or a builder of a sewer system or the Eiffel Tower. Most readers will probably find the ordinary things of the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts to be quite amusing, if not all that enviable. It is this odd focus, perhaps, that accounts for Bryon's claim that the darkest and most helpless moment in American history was not the Civil War, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or seeing the Twin Towers collapse on 9/11/2001, but rather it was a swarm of locusts 1,800 miles long and over 100 miles wide in 1873 over the western plains just as the great migration west was beginning.)
Some years ago, Bryson and his wife moved into a decommissioned Church of England rectory in Norfolk, which is in the easternmost part of England. The rectory is a red brick structure built in 1851 for the Reverend Thomas Marchand. In 1985, just beyond the edge of the property, a farmer found a Roman phallic pendant that had lain in the soil for some seventeen or eighteen centuries. Imagine that, says Bryson. There it lay while Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Elizabethans, Victorians, and the odd American tourist from the 20th or 21st century walked or rode by without disturbing it or even being aware of its existence. The fact is, anywhere you look, no matter where you are, a history of ordinary people (and other creatures!) doing ordinary things that goes back countless millennia has unfolded and been mostly forgotten.
It amazes Bryson to consider that at one time lions and elephants lived in the fields he can see from his home. Something equally amazing most likely filled the landscape outside your windows many times over the past several thousand years. Bryson's musings rarely take us back more than a century or two, but that's all it takes to make the reader realize that we live in rare times. Most humans for most of human history, and most humans even today, do not live a life of expected comfort. Those of us who do, which would include most Americans of my generation, are very lucky indeed. Had we been born just a hundred years earlier, most of us would have been as uncomfortable as most people in the poorest nations are today. Until the 18th century, Bryson informs us, no word existed for the idea of having comfort at home.
Etymology is just one of Bryson's many interests that he shares with the reader. The word 'comfort', in the sense of living in comfort, was first used by Horace Walpole in 1770 in a letter to a friend. Until then, "comfort was something you gave to the wounded or distressed," but not something you expected at home unless you were rich and had servants to treat you the way you believed God wanted you to be treated.
Bryson's rectory has many rooms, affording him many opportunities for relevant digressions into such varied topics as the building of the Erie canal, the relationship between the invention of wonderful labor-saving devices and the revitalization of slavery, the history of child labor, the origin of wigs for men in England, the dangers of paint, the various machinations of Thomas Edison and a host of other interesting characters, the importance of fertilizer, the arrogance of experts throughout the ages in subjects ranging from medicine and nutrition to sex and "God's plan," and literally hundreds of other subjects.
Some rooms we're all familiar with: the kitchen, the dining room, the bedroom, and the bathroom. Even so, I'd venture that most of us have no idea of the history of any of those rooms or of the things they are likely to contain (or not contain). Some rooms, like the cellar, the stairway, and the attic are common in many houses, but where I live (northern California) you won't find too many homes with cellars or attics, but you'll find garages whose contents could no doubt inspire a man like Bryson to write a two-volume "short history."
Some rooms that were common in the 19th century have all but vanished except for those in a few "great houses" that are now tourist attractions: the scullery and larder, and the passage. But wherever Bryson's imagination takes you, whether the room is one you can identify with or not, I guarantee the trip will be entertaining and instructive. Even if you don't live in a home, or in anything like the kind of homes Bryson writes about, the journey through the history of people and ordinary things is likely to keep your interest and have you shaking your head in wonder at the ingeniousness and perversity of our fellow creatures.
Readers of The Skeptic's Dictionary will be interested in Bryson's excursions into the rise of science (the word scientist was coined in 1834) and the pervasiveness of pseudoscience and quackery in the 18th and 19th centuries. How many know that Charles Darwin "routinely draped himself with electrified zinc chains, doused his body with vinegar, and glumly underwent hours of pointless tingling in the hope that it would effect some improvement" of a mysterious condition that left him "chronically lethargic." Imagine what he might have accomplished had he been full of energy all the time. Other wacky ideas included the notion that the potato is an evil food because it isn't mentioned in the Bible.
As imaginative as today's "alternative" thinkers are, they were at least equaled by their 19th century predecessors. Few today exceed the bravura of the eccentric and influential James Graham (1745-1794), who considered electricity to be the Viagra of his day and masturbation to be a great evil. Graham advocated cold washes as the key to good health. At least he didn't advocate bloodletting. Bryson doesn't go into as much detail regarding bloodletting as do Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh in Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, but his treatment of the subject is thorough enough to make us realize how awful the best medical care was one hundred years ago. Those of us who advocate and promote scientific medicine will find it easy to understand why so many people turned to alternative treatments. Conventional medicine was anything but scientific until quite recently. Treatments with toxins, such as mercury and arsenic, were common. So was wilful ignorance of the female body. (The invention of the corset and other items of "pointless discomfort" are covered by Bryson.) I can't imagine anything much worse than being a woman with an illness or a pregnancy in the 19th or early 20th century and having to be subjected to what passed for medicine among male physicians, except perhaps being a healthy woman in that period and being treated like a child or an imbecile because of one's sex.
Two major hurdles had to be overcome before modern scientific medicine could flourish, and they are discussed in some detail by Bryson: the internal toxin theory and the miasma theory of disease. Both misguided notions would have to be abandoned before the possibilities of vaccination and sterilization could be appreciated. Most of us alive today in the US or Britain have lived only in the period where the cause of serious illness or disease is known to be damage to cells and cell functioning from bacteria, viruses, physical or chemical injury, lack of essential nutrients, or some genetic defect. The recent outbreak of cholera in Haiti reminds us that many people routinely died in epidemics in the pre-antibiotic world. Not only cholera, but smallpox, typhoid, whooping cough, and measles killed millions not that long ago. Only quacks continue to maintain that toxins in the body must be removed for anyone's health to be maintained. No one with a basic understanding of physiology believes in the miasma theory anymore. Nor do any but the profoundly ignorant think that all food contains some sort of universal alimentary element that is essentially the same regardless of the kind of food.
Our scientific enlightenment, like our comforts, did not come easily. Few tell a story better that Bill Bryson. Whether it is the story of the Christian aversion to bodily hygiene and its consequences or the story of men traversing the world to find out a better way to make tea or concrete, Bryson makes the story relevant to our lives today. That he does so in a style of rapturous detail and understated humor makes his work that much more of a treasure. After reading this book, you may not be able to control yourself from launching into laborious discourse on the spice trade the next time you put cinnamon on your children's oatmeal or pack opium into your bong. "Did you know that FDR's grandfather made much of his fortune dealing in opium or that Queen Victoria was the largest druglord in history?" I didn't think so. You should read this book. You'll be amazed at how much you don't know. Who invented the lawn mower? Better yet, who invented the lawn? Who invented string? Did someone really say that masturbation causes blindness? Did James Boswell really contract venereal disease nineteen times? Did one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence really die from sticking a whalebone up his penis to try to clear a urinary blockage? Who killed President James Garfield? An assassin or a doctor who infected him with his filthy fingers? Bill Bryson's got the story and you can get it too just by reading his book.
25 November 2010
A note on the Kindle edition. I have complained before of the lack of good navigation between text and notes in Kindle books. The problem seems to have been fixed.
A note on calling Queen Victoria the largest druglord in history: Bryson doesn't go into the Opium Wars or Britain's theft of opium from India to sell in China. That story is told by James Bradley in The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War. I posted a short review of Bradley's work in Newsletter 118.