What We’re Reading: At Home: A History of Private Life

I am the unlikeliest person to be reading this book, for three reasons: 1) as anyone who knows me well can report, I have a certain deficiency in the housekeeping department; 2) I’m more inclined to be buried in a work of fiction than nonfiction; 3) If I were to be reading nonfiction, chances are it wouldn’t be history.


But Bill Bryson upends all that. I’ve been unable to tear myself away from this book whenever I have a spare minute. Minutes turn into hours. The morning paper gets abandoned to read just a bit more before work.


What makes this book so fascinating is that it’s a history of domestic living, via a tour, room by room, of a house. And though you may recognize a small thing you knew here or there, either we’ve forgotten, or in many cases, we never knew, how much history goes into every single part of a house. Take the hall, for instance, which once comprised the whole of a house, but now is just a simple pass-through spot on your way to somewhere else. I’d never thought about why this was, but it’s fascinating to learn that until chimneys were invented and the smoke from fires could be vented out of the room, there were no second floors because the upper part of a room was full of smoke. Or what dining areas used to look like (and where the term room and board comes from and why “chair” is often connected to a person or position of importance). Or what floors were constituted of (rushes) or the pros and cons of living in a world without electricity lit only by candlelight (pros: “a goat looks lady-like in the dark”; cons: The Great Fire of London).


I could go on because the surprising and amusing and amazing facts are on every page. Did I ever even think there was a reason why joists run from the front of the house to the back? Or where the term limelight comes from? In short, if everyone else weren’t reading this book now too, I would have material to be the most fascinating dinner guest ever. However, compared to those days, I’m starting to feel pretty good about my housekeeping.


-Kathy, Senior Editor

3 Comments On This Post:

December 21, 2010
9:43 am
patty says...

“A goat looks lady-like in the dark”–I am trying not to think too hard about that one. Since I have not (yet) read this book, I would be delighted to listen to Kathy’s fascinating dinner conversation about it!

December 21, 2010
1:32 pm
Carolyn says...

Well, now I know what I’LL be reading next!!! Love when I have a great book to look forward to. Now reading “Merle’s Door”, which I love and recently finished my favorite book of the year “a Friend of the Family” so my next book needed to be a heavy hitter! Thanks, Kathy!

December 21, 2010
3:28 pm
Major Charles says...

I’m rereading this quirky holiday story (link below) which is actually a Greek tragedy in disguise. Not unlike what the Coen brothers did with “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” Aristotle says a good tragedy is charged with dignity and a certain seriousness and an eventual reversal of fortune. So, how can a story about a hunchback septic tank worker be all that? Check it out. Tis the season.


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