In Bill Bryson's ‘Home,' rooms have quite a history

February 6, 2011 

One of Bill Bryson's 15 books is called "A Short History of Nearly Everything," and deals with the origins of the universe, the beginnings of life and the rise of civilization. His latest, "At Home," seems more modest, but don't let that fool you. In taking you through his home, room by room, he tells the story behind everything you see, from the origins of windows and doorknobs to the history of the salt shaker, the evolution of the fork and the invention of cement.

Bryson uses as his framework the 1851 Victorian parsonage in which he lives, but ranges all over the place. Before he is through he has covered everything from the discovery of vitamins to the building of the Eiffel Tower, and clearly had a lot of fun doing it.

His wry sense of humor is never far away, and he seems to have had almost as much fun writing this book as we have in reading it.

He begins with the observation that for the first 99 percent of our time on Earth we accomplished little more than surviving and reproducing ourselves. It's amazing how recent are some of the ordinary things we take for granted. The mousetrap, the safety pin and the zipper are only a century old, and vitamins weren't even discovered until 1912.

His inquisitive mind leaps continuously from one subject to another and you are never sure where it will go next. The invention of the mousetrap in 1899 (a design so perfect that it is still used) leads to a disquisition on mice (one pair can produce a million offspring a year) to rats to bed mites and bedbugs and head lice and finally to the much maligned bat. These busy little creatures gobble up insects (the tiny pipistrelle can devour 3,000 a night) and make possible the survival of such foods as avocados, bananas, dates, figs, mangoes and peaches.

A visit to the bedroom ("the seat of more suffering and despair than all the other rooms of the house put together") leads to the evolution of the bed to sexual relations to venereal disease to death and the fear of being buried alive to grave robbing to methods of disposing of dead bodies to cremation -- and then we're off to the bathroom.

This takes us from Greek and Roman bathing habits to the frequency of baths in general (for a time the British saw bathing as risky and often stayed unwashed for years at a time), to the plague, smallpox and on to the disposal of human waste and the glorious invention of the flush toilet. (The classic toilet, using an elevated cistern, was invented by one Thomas Crapper, and made him both rich and famous.)

This carries us to the dreadful inadequacies of the sewers and subsequent outbreaks of epidemics such as typhoid and cholera to the miasma theory (such diseases are airborne) to the development of anesthetics (chloroform was discovered in 1847 and while it eased pain, it often killed the patient). From there it's on to research into the real causes of disease and finally back to the installation of toilet facilities in private homes and the evolution of the bathtub.

We learn about the vast changes in what we wear, how we decorate ourselves (there are many pages on wigs and women's hairstyles so elaborate that they were unchanged for weeks; one woman found a nest of mice had settled in since the last time her hair was set). Then it's on to the dangers of childbirth in the 18th and 19th centuries, the status of children (who were put to work in factories and mines as young as 4 years old) and life expectancy, which as late as the middle of the 19th century was, at birth, less than 19 years.

Bryson is still charging ahead as he climbs up to the attic and muses about the irony that our endless quest for comfort and happiness may produce a world in which we have neither. "But that, of course, would be another book."

Whatever it is, it will be more than welcome.

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