Review: Bill Bryson At Home


I love Bill Bryson. I thought his Notes from a Small Island was witty, biting and showed an endearing love of Britain with all its flaws. Its American equivalent was just as interesting, given his propensity for going off on a seeming tangent to dump a load of fascinating facts that you want to share with other people and then coming back, pages later, to his original point. So I was predisposed to like this book.

It’s set up as a history of private life – the reasons we have more than one floor in our house, the development of everyday household items like the telephone and electricity (some gorgeous analysis of the fact that it’s simply because Edison was more organised and could get the New York glitterati involved that we remember him as the inventor of the light bulb rather than several others who did the same thing). This does make it fascinating, and gives him space to roam widely – but sometimes a little too widely for me.

I loved the facts. I loved the sheer wealth of information (the list of vicars who invented thing, for example, is stunning, as is the section on Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition) but I felt sometimes it wasn’t quite focused enough for its own good. Mid-way through a chapter that started off about the hallway, I’d be wondering why we were discussing the American propensity for colonnades, for example. When there’s so much material in a single room, going too far off course makes it feel more like a wasted opportunity than a seizing of one.

That said, Bryson’s always a very readable writer (I frequently use his books as examples when teaching students how to write non-fiction!) with a dry sarcasm and wit, and I always love the new facts that I want to tell everyone when I’ve finished reading.

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