Book Review: “At Home: A short History of Private Life”

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Imagine coming home, turning the key in the lock, opening your front door, and then walking into a whole new world. In the living room, you’re met with 18th century architects crouching over blueprints, busy designing some of the most monumental mansions in England. Puzzled, you head to the kitchen to find Christopher Columbus collecting tree bark thinking it is precious cinnamon, and Magellan involved in a violent clash with some native tribes in the “Spice Islands”. Then you hurry up to splash your face with some cold water to wake up from what seems to be a peculiar dream, but as soon as you open the bathroom’s door you find people itching restlessly and smelling of dirt and stale urine. Seeking refuge in your bedroom, you close the door as soon as you have opened once you see the people with the extreme wigs, women giving birth in less than hygienic circumstances, and a certain gentleman arguing with his wife,  repeatedly announcing the most horrifying decision: “Damn it, woman! You shall burn.”

If you think that a far-fetched scenario, and if you think this is the kind of adventure you would like to experience outside the restraining frame of the silver screen, then the next best thing you can do is to grab a copy of Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this book was Bryson’s ability to take something as mundane as the things we do and use on daily basis almost unconsciously, and turn that into something interesting and worth reading about. Through the solemn passageways and squeaky doors of your house, Bryson takes you on a journey down the aisles of history, so far back as 4 or 5 thousand years ago to meet the people who built roofless, closely stacked houses for reasons we don’t now begin to comprehend, or to meet Otzi, whose death was followed by some miraculously favorable circumstances which led to him becoming the most celebrated corpse in history, 4 thousand years after he had first expired.

In each of the 19 chapters Bryson takes you on a different, unexpected journey. Little did I expect that the cellar would take me to the much polluted back streets of London, or that by walking into the passageway I would be going on a short trip to 18th century Paris to have a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Eiffel Tour. Or that by walking upstairs I’d be going into my own brain to learn the process it goes through the moment I start to ascend or descend a flight of stairs, and how the neglect of such process sometimes proved fatal to some poor individuals. All in all, reading “At Home” was like reading 19 different books, all combined in one book. If one chapter failed to engage my interest, the next would quickly pick it up again.

However, at some point I had to ask myself whether I should question everything Bryson mentioned in the book, for I came across a piece of information he cites with so much confidence, but which I know for a fact to be untrue. While talking about Muslim and Hindu soldiers in the British Empire, Bryson mentioned that the consumption of pig fat “even unwittingly, would condemn them to eternal damnation.” Now, I don’t know about the Hindus, but as a Muslim I know for a fact that even though it is prohibited to eat pork in Islam, and any products that come from pigs for that matter, I also know that consuming these products doesn’t condemn a person for eternal damnation, much less if they were consumed unwittingly.

Keeping that in mind, as well as with any other book as you can’t take things for granted but rather you should always keep an eye for fallacies and misconceptions, using your mind as a filter for what you should or should not take away from that book, I think that Bill Bryson’s At Home is a brilliant book, almost as brilliant as his bestseller “A short history of nearly everything” which remains my favorite, and both are certainly worth reading.

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  1. Pingback: A Short Walk | Attire stuff

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