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review: Bill Bryson: At Home
by Tony Miksak
Bill Bryson has written a lot of books. He is funny and informative, in recent years more informative than funny, and that's OK.
Seven years ago he seemed to cap off a lifetime of non-fiction works with A Short History of Nearly Everything, basically science from your airplane window; at least that's where the thought first came to him. What ARE those white things we call clouds?
He had covered a lot already England, the English tongue, the Continent, America in general and the Appalachian Trail in particular, Australia, autobiography, you name it. Then he did it again another huge and not short history of some aspects of, well, private life. Bryson's latest book, At Home.
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Home, for the Brysons, is a Victorian-era "former Church of England rectory in a village of tranquil anonymity in Norfolk, in the easternmost part of England."
We read our way through The Hall, The Kitchen, The Scullery and Larder, The Fuse Box (entire chapter on Fuse Box), Drawing Room, Dining Room, down to Cellar, out to Garden, into Plum Room, up The Stairs to Bedroom, Bathroom, Dressing Room, Nursery and finally, the Attic, where the book both begins and ends.
"I had occasion to go up into the attic to look for the source of a slow but mysterious drip," Bryson writes. "When I did finally flop into the dusty gloom and clambered to my feet, I was surprised to find a secret door, not visible from anywhere outside the house, in an external wall."
Bryson tries to understand the attic door and everything else in the house. "Houses aren't refuges from history," he says. "They are where history ends up."
"'Have you ever noticed,' Brian (a local archaeologist) said as we stepped into the church-yard (next door) how country churches nearly always seem to be sinking into the ground? Well, it isn't because the church is sinking... It's because the churchyard has risen. How many people do you suppose are buried here?'"
The answer, arrived at after a bit of calculation and estimation, was twenty thousand burials in that one churchyard. No wonder the church appeared to be "in a slight depression, like a weight placed on a cushion."
You will learn about the Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, immediately known to all as the Crystal Palace in London. Bryson describes the civil servant who conceived of it, and the deaf Duke who impulsively hired his gardener to design and build it. Add in glass making and glass taxes. We're still in Chapter One.
Bryson's own manse is "a more modest edifice... designed by one Edward Tull of Aylsham, an architect fascinatingly devoid of conventional talent (as we shall see) for a young clergyman of good breeding named Thomas John Gordon Marsham."
With this book and a couple glasses of wine you can bore nearby loved ones with amusing stories: Origins of the mousetrap; dangers of nineteenth century paints; invention of cast-iron bathtubs: Hey Joselyn! What? Did you know that "porcelain enamel is in fact neither porcelain nor enamel, but (in essence) a type of glass"? The wool spinning problem. Child labor. Reverend Marsham's relationship with his housekeeper, Miss Worm. I could go on; Bryson does.
After 450 densely packed pages Bryson returns to the attic ("It turned out to be a slipped tile that was allowing rain through."). From a table-top sized secret landing outside he reflects, "One of the things not visible from our rooftop is how much energy and other inputs we require now to provide us with the ease and convenience that we have all come to expect in our lives. It's a lot a shocking amount. Of the total energy produced on Earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in just the last twenty years. Disproportionately, it was consumed by us in the rich world; we are an exceedingly privileged fraction."
He ends At Home with this thought: "The greatest possible irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither. But that of course would be another book."
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Here's how they figured out the number of burials: "A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adult deaths per century, plus a few thousand more poor souls that didn't make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been there and you can see that what you have here is not eighty or a hundred burials, but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty thousand... That's a lot of mass, needless to say. It's why the ground has risen three feet."
Tony Miksak is a recovering Indie Bookseller, now retired, who posts a weekly column Words on Books... and a few other things from time to time online. A cellist, Italophile, and Casparado, he lives on California's North Coast.
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