Monday, July 30, 2012

At Home

Though it may not yet have been obvious from reading the blog, one of my very favorite authors of all time is Bill Bryson. I fell in love with his work reading his travel books just after returning home from my semesters abroad during my third year of college. Recently, he came out with a new book called At Home, which I received as a birthday gift from good old Mom and Dad.

This book was pretty darn entertaining. I started it several weeks ago, but wound up putting it on hold on a few different occasions, mostly so I could read library books before they were due. It was easy to do that with this book, where each chapter has a somewhat independent focus. The book begins with Bryson at the house he and his family own(ed?) in England, where he moves from room to room. Each room gives him a chance to tell a different story about how it is that people came to live as they do today. He is also able to note how the rooms were designed and why, describing what was in fashion 150 years ago when the place was built.

I have to admit that there were some of these anecdotes I didn't find all that fascinating (the history of steel architecture jumps to mind). However, there were a few others that really drew me in. The book includes an explanation of stairs and how they are designed to avoid danger that I found very intriguing. I guess I'd never really understood how it is, in fact, a feat of engineering that most buildings constructed in the modern era in the developed world have staircases that are remarkably similar and which are generally very safe.

Another interesting topic that came up was the history of bathing and disease. Bryson explores how, for much of human history, these two topics were involved in an unfortunate vicious cycle. This might not be the kind of material you'd want to read with a sensitive stomach, but it really is rather remarkable how rare these diseases are in my corner of the world..

I think the most interesting aspect of this book was that it reminded me of how very different it must be to make your home in Europe because there are so many older buildings. Can you imagine living in a home that's 150 years old? I sure can't. While I know there are some buildings of that age in the U.S., it appears to me that many of the residential buildings in that age category have been converted into museums. I don't think I've ever even heard of someone who lived in a 150 year old place. Indeed, this was especially interesting in contrast with the Wilder Life. That author traveled the country seeking the homes where the famed Laura Ingalls Wilder had grown up, which were the settings that inspired the books and television show, and discovered that not one of those buildings is still standing. Though this might be attributable to construction methods as much as anything else, the fact remains that the buildings that surround us in the U.S. are generally very new. In that way, even At Home was a travel novel because it detailed the kind of "experience" (even if only in one's mind) that can't be had here! What do you think was happening at your house 150 years ago?

1 comment:

  1. For 6 years my family and I were lucky to have lived in an elegant lady - a home built in 1816. Long story short: a couple completely restored it, they died, their children donated it to their church who wanted the cash instead, we bought it. Everyday I felt blessed to just walk through it - 14 ft ceilings, 6 fireplaces, glorious molding and, yes, it felt a lot like living in a museum. But, the maintenance was incredible. Whenever something goes wrong in an historic home that usually translates into big buck$ and the utilities bills were enormous. But our memories of living in that house are beautiful.