Bryson's latest book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, is an intriguing collection of historical facts and anecdotes loosely organized around the rooms in his own home, a former rectory in the eastern part of England. Bryson is an admirable historian and etymologist, as well as a prolific nonfiction writer, with such popular books as A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country. At Home, however, lacks Bryson's self-deprecating humor and biting wit that made A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country such entertaining reads.
At Home isn't without its charms, however. At Home is well-written and is enjoyable to read, but is more of a history book than personal memoir. Bryson packs in hundreds of little-known facts like how lawns became popular, why forks have four tines, how furniture came to be upholstered, how early wallpaper could be lethal, and why churches in the British countryside often appear to be sinking into the ground. He expounds on the development of cement, the advent of electricity, the development of steel, and the birth of modern plumbing, all in the context of describing the rooms in his own home. This works sometimes, but there are times that Bryson goes so far afield it's difficult to relate the topic to any room in a house. For example, in the chapter on the study or library, he dedicates many pages to household pests, describing the activities of rats, mice, bedbugs, lice, and other vermin, living with, on, or in the inhabitants of a house. This made sense to him, because this is where he was most likely to find a mouse in his mousetrap.
Bryson related many stories of inventors rising from the depths of anonymity, often poor but occasionally befriended by a wealthier benefactor, who created a wildly successful item, only to sell the patent, or have the proceeds of his success stolen from him, or to squander away his fortune, and to die in disgrace and poverty. Equally stunning were the numbers of "architects" with no formal training who built or attempted to build huge structures, with varying degrees of success.
It's clear that Bryson's research is extensive on many subjects, and people who enjoy knowing the "why" behind so many modern day conveniences and of course, the way your house may even be built and designed, will find this book satisfying. Bryson does a remarkable job making subjects that could be quite dry entertaining and in some cases, even amusing.
At Home was published by Doubleday in 2010.