Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Secret History of Your House

After many years as renters, my husband and I recently decided that we’re finally ready to buy our first place, and I have houses on the brain. Now that a mind-boggling number of variables suddenly demand consideration (do we really need a separate dining room?), I find myself wondering—what makes a structure a home?

This is a highly subjective question with a different answer for every person, especially since the meaning of “home” has changed quite a bit over time. The social and cultural histories of home life give a fascinating glimpse into our own past through the evolution of domestic comforts. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson uses his own dwelling, a creaky old Victorian parsonage, as a lens to examine these hidden histories as they happened in Britain and the United States.

As the author points out, “the history of household life isn’t just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it would be, but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything that has ever happened”. Real history is in the details, in the things we touch and eat and keep in our closets, and Bryson leads the reader on a hilarious and revealing room-by-room ride through those details.

If you like smart, funny nonfiction that explains the mysteries of the mundane in a refreshing way, or if you like the idea of rummaging through the bathroom cabinets of history, I think you will enjoy this book as much as I did.

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