AUTHOR BILL BRYSON IS CURIOUS. In addition to the lands he has surveyed for his many travel books (such as Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe and A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail), he’s also explored the topics of science (in A Short History of Nearly Everything) and the English language (in The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way and Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States). In his latest work, At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Doubleday, $29), Bryson trades adventures in the Australian Outback and discoveries in quantum mechanics for endlessly fascinating forays into the kitchen. And the hall. And the bedroom. And the cellar.
Bryson’s inspiration was his own 19th-century English countryside abode, which was once the home of Reverend Thomas Marsham and his housekeeper, Elizabeth Worm. One day, while standing on the balcony with his friend, a recently retired archaeologist, Bryson contemplated the activities that may have taken place throughout history in that very spot. He writes: “Centuries and centuries of people quietly going about their daily business — eating, sleeping, having sex, endeavouring to be amused — and it occurred to me, with the forcefulness of a thought experienced in 360 degrees, that that’s really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things.”
As he turned his focus home, Bryson realized how little he actually knew about domestic life. Why, for example, do we have “such an abiding attachment” to salt and pepper? Why were doors in old European homes so short? Why do forks have four tines? Bryson set out to answer hundreds of questions such as these, loosely structured by room.
Each chapter is chock-full of Bryson’s ruthless research (the book includes a 26-page bibliography). Take “The Hall,” for example. In this chapter, Bryson explains that most homes began as one-room dwellings. From here, he describes the waves of people who populated Britain, early historic homes (including the grubenhaus), the fragmentation of medieval estates, the invention of the life-changing chimney, the evolution of private space and the effect of royal visits on ever-growing English manor homes.
In “The Study,” we learn about the mating behavior of rats. In “The Bedroom,” we discover what surgery was like before anesthesia. And in “The Cellar,” Bryson expounds on the devastating dangers of imperfectly cast iron.
Though charming, Bryson’s curiosity can be exhausting. Each chapter is a ride through his active stream of consciousness, sometimes fl owing easily between one topic and the next, but just as often leaving you woozy, wondering how you got from there to here. But that is the dizzying joy of a collection of miscellany such as this: Readers come away from the journey with a richer understanding of the world around them — and a few great pieces of trivia with which to wow their friends.
Celebrities spill on what they’re really thankful for in On Gratitude. By Jenna Schnuer
IT’S EASY TO BE CYNICAL when celebrities reel off the thank-yous. Getting to what they’re truly grateful for? That takes an expert. Enter Todd Aaron Jensen, a contributor to American Way and the author of On Gratitude: Sheryl Crow, Jeff Bridges, Alicia Keys, Daryl Hall, Ray Bradbury, Anna Kendrick, B.B. King, Elmore Leonard, Deepak Chopra, and 42 More Celebrities Share What They’re Most Thankful For (Adams Media, $15). “If you have a conversation instead of an interrogation, you can get people to tell you just about anything,” he says. We asked for some scoop on the book, and Jensen obliged. To which we say: Thanks.
FIRST OFF: REALLY? LESSONS ABOUT GRATITUDE FROM CELEBRITIES? No matter how jaded we are, we all have somebody we look up to, and it’s probably somebody from pop culture. Nobody in this book is saying, “This is how you live a happy life.” They’re saying, “This is the hand I was dealt, this is how I played these cards, and I turned out OK.”
SO, HOW MANY PEOPLE IN THE BOOK THANK THEIR MOM FIRST? Most of [those] didn’t make it in because virtually all of them — except for two people — did thank their mother. And I’m not going to tell you who didn’t.
WHAT WAS YOUR TAKEAWAY FROM THE INTERVIEWS? The purpose of any creative endeavor is to help people feel a little less alone. That’s a sentiment that was echoed to me by many of the people I’ve interviewed over the years. I found myself in great company in the idea that those tough times are actually the seeds for our greatest gratitude.