I hadn’t read anything by Bill Bryson since his hilarious A Walk In The Woods, about a sojourn on the Appalachian Trail. Pre Mark Sanford, of course. Then At Home beckoned and within ten pages I knew I’d waited too long.
Bryson starts with a short description of a rectory he and his family have just moved into in rural England. He climbs into the attic to investigate a leak, finds a strange door, wonders why it’s there, starts looking into the history of the house, then into the history of all houses everywhere, and we’re off.
Room by room, he explores the history of how houses built in 1851–the construction year of the Rectory–got to be designed the way they were and how they were used. He takes us, for example, to the Orkney Island neolithic village of Skara Brae, only recently discovered and excavated. What’s neolithic, you might ask? Let’s just say it’s over 5,000 years ago. As old as the oldest known cities, like Ur, Babylon, etc. It had discrete rooms, shelves, a sewer system. And no one knows who built it or what became of them. What we do know that they developed all this stuff independently of any of those other places I mentioned, that when they disappeared, everything they invented disappeared with them, and didn’t reappear in the British Isles till the Romans brought some of them back. Then, when the Romans left, they disappeared again, and the whole idea of what a house is, was, and should be changed again.
No such thing, for example, as a bedroom in Britain of the dark ages. Just halls where everyone did everything. Not a hall as a passageway connecting discrete rooms.
And on Bryson goes with the details, economy, politics, invasions, global influences, familial and linguistic developments in an extraordinarily far-ranging account of, as the subtitle puts it, private life. Every page has one to a dozen new discoveries, and they’re none of them anything but welcome. The structure is compelling, the writing, as lovely as only he can make it. And Bill Bryson, thanks for coming home–and for bringing us along.