Tuesday, June 7, 2011

At Home by Bill Bryson *****

Bill Bryson's new book: At Home: A Short History of Private Life raises his unique mixture of etymology, short biography, and historical trivia to new heights and depths. This volume is loosely organized around rooms in Bryson's family home in East Anglia, England, built in 1851. How loosely? Consider the chapter on the cellar which includes trivia and history of the Erie Canal, cement, log cabins, bricks, and stucco, coal, and steel.

For the reader of such literature, some of the material is repetitive, such as the etymology of crapper - not named after the inventor Thomas Crapper, and the observations of Elizabeth Wayland Barber in the absolutely best book of this genre: Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times.

However most of the material is fresh and fascinating, including a tidbit about the aspidistra - found in most Victorian parlors because it was the only plant able the survive in an environment lit by gas, and a argument that the oft repeat theory that parental attachment to children, and even the idea of childhood itself, is a recent invention is a theory not supported by any historical facts and most likely a fanciful fiction.

This book ranks as one of Bryson's best, though my all time favorite is still The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way with its explanation of how English with its largest lexicon, impossible spellings, chaotic grammar ended up as the international lingua franca.

While all the information I could confirm independently appeared correct, the book did contain one serious mathematical error. In giving the dimensions of 20 cords of wood, the example was actually 20^3 or 8,000 cords of wood. Regardless, I recommend this book without any other reservation.

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