Friday, November 18, 2011

Bill Bryson's At Home

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, 2010.

I bought A Short History of Nearly Everything in the airport bookstore in Glasgow just before my flight home a few years ago, and greatly enjoyed Bryson's clear and engaging exploration of what makes our world tick. I enjoy learning from him, and when I already know some of the things he's discussing, I delight in his deftly humorous touch.

I was quite pleased to discover his new book, At Home, which uses his house to explore how we have come to live in the comfort we generally think of when we hear the word home. Bryson moves from room to room, explaining both how they came to exist in their modern forms, and historical and sociological developments associated with them. The chapter on the bedroom contains information both on mites and other wee beasties that share our rooms, fashion and the history of bedding, and both sex and childbirth (and quite the discursive exploration of the development of modern surgical technique) before discussing death and burial and mourning customs. That on the bathroom discusses not just plumbing, but the entirety of the development of the sewage system. The stairs chapter alone has convinced me to hold on to the handrail with every future ascent and descent of my life, after hearing rather sobering statistics on falls!

Though long, the book is eminently readable and fascinating. I discovered both interesting trivia and the histories of discoveries and engineering feats that left me going to bed too late for a couple of nights. Bryson has a fascination with the more interesting of the personalities one can encounter in history, and we re treated to the eccentricities and marvels of both Washington and Jefferson, of Joseph Paxton and Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, and many more. What's remarkable is how the asides all come back to his topic, and how Bryson is able to use his own home as a lens to explore modern life in all of its variety. Curiosity is rewarded; wondering is a worthy thing to do, and we can come to realize that the shape of our lives has been determined by our connection to the work of many varied people and groups (having read this book, you'll not take either bricks or glass for granted again, without marveling at their complexity).

Throughout the book, Bryson is engaged in a subtle project that only culminates at its very end; a project that was made clear in A Short History of Nearly Everything though the and sweep of science here is revealed through the small details of quotidian living. He writes:

Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a European, or every twenty-eight hours by an American. We are, in short, able to live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet's other citizens. One day--and don't expect it to be a distant day--many of those six billion or so less well-off people are bound to demand what we have, and to get it as effortlessly as we got it, and that will require more resources than this plant can easily, or even conceivably, yield. 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. (451-52)

Bryson's sobering thoughts are well worth heeding, and make me turn again to Mike Nickerson's thesis in Life, Money, and Illusion: Living on Earth as If We Want to Stay that all uses of resources need to account not just for monetary costs but for their true impact upon the planet. I hope we'll heed both messages; after enjoying such a lovely book as Bryson's, it's a good thing to be brought up short.

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