Bill Bryson's 'At Home' requires more ornamentation

Book review: "At Home: A Short History of Private Life," by Bill Bryson. Doubleday, $25.

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Over the past 25 years, Bill Bryson has been an amiable guide to, well, practically everything, and his new book is no exception.

Arranged around the conceit of a tour through the Victorian-era rectory in England where he now lives, the book begins with a promising idea:

"Houses aren't refuges from history. They are where history ends up."

Intriguing though it is, however, this premise also allows some less agreeable ghosts out of the closet.

As Mr. Bryson walks us through his home, he takes occasion to discuss things large and small. We learn how footmen got their name. (They ran alongside the carriages of wealthy employers both as tokens of conspicuous consumption and as attendants to their needs.)

We discover that wallpaper was a particularly lethal kind of home decor (it contained arsenic and poisoned many an inhabitant) and that stairs are the most dangerous places in the home (if you go up and down them enough, you are destined to experience an injury requiring hospital care, once in every 3,616,667 passes, to be exact).

We also find out about the horrors of surgery before anesthesia, the trials of living without indoor plumbing or electric lighting and innumerable other matters.

Although fascinating, "At Home" never rises above its own power to accumulate information for our entertainment. As a compendium of human activity, the book is less a "history of private life" than an assemblage of things that happened in history.

Or if it is a history, it is a kind of magpie history with topics linked largely by Mr. Bryson's ability to write smooth transitions between any two things rather than by entering into sustained conversations with his material.

Viewing everything from the flush toilet to the abusive treatment of household servants with the same wide-eyed wonder, his book reads like a print version of "America's Funniest Home Videos," where the gleeful presentation of broken bones, missing teeth and damaged psyches are all just part of the fun.

It may seem churlish to ask Mr. Bryson to have done more with his subject, but it is certainly fair to wonder, given his bold claim "to consider the ordinary things in life, to notice them for once and treat them as if they were important," what we should make of his effort.

Since at least the 1970s, when English translations of Fernand Braudel put the history of ordinary life squarely in the mainstream, many writers have brought strong historical intelligence to bear on the impact of technological developments, environmental changes, physical structures and other conditions on the lives of common people.

It is telling in this regard that Mr. Bryson identifies the central concerns of human existence as "eating, sleeping, having sex, endeavoring to be amused" but makes no mention of work.

Americans have a reputation for their breezy relation to complex ideas. But in these times when some of our most important public debates fit comfortably onto a bumper sticker, when learning is nearly synonymous with YouTube viewing sessions and when so much egregious behavior is accepted with a shrug, one has to wonder whether we shouldn't be asking more of our reading material.

Robert Peluso teaches literature at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.


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