Before I review Bryson's latest I have to admit that I am a huge Bryson fan; so even if he had written on a subject such as the history of wallpaper, I would with hesitation have read it.
For those unfamilier with Bryson, he was born in Des Moines but later moved to England. His earlier books were mostly travel oriented and are not only superb guides but also amusing. Bryson's gift, or his greatest attribute is his ability to make even the most mundane subject interesting and often amusing.
Recently however, his two recent books have not only given the readers a chuckle, but also educated them.
I have a degree in chemistry and probably enough credits for a minor in biology but still learned plenty in The Short History of Nearly Everything
. Apparently, I was not alone in my admiration as the book won the Aventis and Descartes awards for best science books of 2005. It was Bryson's vast knowledge of words and his terrific storytelling prowess that made the book enjoyable to even the scientific novice. In my opinion it should be required reading for all high school science classes.
His latest book is entitled At Home: A Short History of Private Life
and is written to again educate and entertain. Bryson's inspiration is his 19th century rectory in Norfolk. The rectory has seen generations of families come and go and has been transformed with inventions to not only bring comfort but also to improve life.
The chapters follow the rectory from room to room comparing and contrasting where we have made vast improvements in society and some where we may have sputtered on automatic pilot.
Some of the journals Bryson has rescued from the past show us how different and sometimes how alike we are to our ancestors. In one angrily written entry by a servant, she is complaining of having to endure lobster day after day while the owners get to feast on chicken. Many of the early cookbooks talk of vegetables and fruit that we love today, as distasteful to the palates of the time period.
The one part of the book that I struggled with was his long chapter on servitude. I'm not sure if he was trying to show the differences in classes during the time, but it was a little over the top. In one instant he would be talking about how the servants could be beaten or forced to sleep on dirty cold floors and just as quick considered them lucky to have food and shelter. I think most know that it was not a desirable life to work as a servent and thought that he could have made the point in less print.
For people who have read many of Bryson's work before, there is not quite as much humor as in his travel books, but I think it is because Bryson has assumed a new role as educator. Besides how many jokes can you make about furniture?
Give it a chance and if possible listen to it on audio as Bryson's voice lends itself to superb storytelling.