Under my byline

A lot of little

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 8 April 2012

Bill Bryson, by James DawsonFrom Bill Bryson, another short history of… stuff

A colleague and I came to blows over this book. It happened like this: I said “Bill Bryson doesn’t know how to write,” and she hit me with her copy of At Home. It isn’t a slim paperback.

As it turns out, we were both right. Bryson writes astonishingly third-rate prose, but he tells terrific stories. It’s a rare sentence that is well composed as well as informative, thus inviting both an “Ah!” of illumination and a chuckle of appreciation. Instead the lines are cluttered with cliches and phrases that no serious writer should use without embarrassment or at least two coats of irony, such as “We know remarkably little”, “the invaders didn’t necessarily swarm”, “comprehensively vague”, “means or spirit”, “deep mystery”, “resist more effectively” and “enjoy benefits” — all from pages 48 and 49, chosen at random.

Any page is a good starting point, because on every page the mad vine of Bryson’s writing unfurls a bud or bloom or breaks into some kind of fruit. Nowhere else are you likely to be told what sperm whales had to do with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Nor how a young engineer named Canvass White invented a hydraulic cement that helped to make America (he did it after walking 2,000 miles along England’s old canals). Or how it was that a provincial gardener named Joseph Paxton came to build the Crystal Palace in London, one of its century’s most amazing buildings.

As you can tell, these are all 19th-century events and processes centred on England and the USA. In 1851, the year after the Crystal Palace went up, in the rural north of England a rectory was being built to house the obscure clergyman of a small medieval church. The Old Rectory now belongs to Bill Bryson and his family, and is the inspiration for the story he tells in this book.

It’s not quite what the subtitle says it is — “A Short History of Private Life” — but it is about the tangled histories of, and fascinating characters behind, the things and spaces which fill up and, indeed, make our homes. Wandering from room to room through the eccentric pile his family calls home, Bryson realised how little he knew about how houses came to be this way. Whence the hall? the scullery? table manners? the indoor toilet? salt and pepper? the desire for privacy? afternoon tea? the habit of partying late? the corset and colourful ladies’ underwear? Here he has assembled some answers into a running if idiosyncratic history of the West since the Industrial Revolution.

Some segues are predictable, such as from pepper to colonialism; other connections are laboured, such as that between ‘The Passage’ (the part of the Old Rectory which gives its name to chapter 10) and the building of the Eiffel Tower. The real fun of this book, however, is Bryson’s love of biography. He loves to tell about the creative, enterprising, odd or rich people who powered history along by their interventions in material culture.

At Home, by Bill Bryson

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson, Doubleday, pp viii + 536

Canvass White’s waterproof cement allowed a canal to be built between New York and the Great Lakes, turning New York City into the gateway to North America. White himself never saw much money from his invention, and died poor. A drillman named “Colonel” Edwin Drake, who was neither a colonel nor a drillman but a railway ticket inspector, made the first oil strike after a year and a half of drilling in Pennsylvania. His employer thought oil would make a better fuel for lighting than spermaceti, which was taken from sperm whales hunted on the ocean. An oil boom followed, in which Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth lost his savings. Paxton of the Crystal Palace was much more successful, and his interests encompassed all sorts of things from engineering to journalism.

Among other do-ers favoured by Bryson are the aristocrats and rich men of Industrial Revolution England who built the thousands of stately homes with which the English countryside was once graced. The richer they were, the odder their tastes, and the more resources they lavished on their houses and gardens. Cue pages and pages on architecture, architects, landscape designers and irrigation engineers, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and their unique homes, the American commercial aristocracy of the Gilded Age and their billion-dollar seaside “cottages”, social habits and servants — domestic servants are a rich vein that Bryson diligently mines. He is lucky that so much material on Western history is available.

All this description should show you some of the good and not-so-good of this book. For one, it’s about England and America. Bryson was born in the USA and lives in England. There’s not much about the rest of the world.

Second, it resembles his other nonfiction work, especially A Short History of Nearly Everything, a bestseller which really does cover nearly everything in reasonably simple language. After a while, reading Bryson is like adding too much to enough. In At Home, once you’ve understood Bryson’s method — one type of room, one chapter — you gain nothing more by way of analysis. The parts add up nicely, but not to more than the whole.

In this book you will find business biographies and lessons in developing, protecting and capitalising on originality. You will find snatches of scientific history. You will see how the rich lived and servants served; you will get glimpses of the early industrial middle-class. Think of this as a cross between the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and Wikipedia, told to you by a very good storyteller. There are holes, to be sure, but it’s quite a lot for rather little.

(The image of Bill Bryson is by James Dawson via Wikimedia Commons, licence CC BY-SA 3.0.)

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