Walber Browne Browne de Rosudgeon, Penzance, Cornwall , UK
Bill Bryson’s big book of everything. Reviewing travel-writer Bill Bryson’s ”At Home” amounts to an even bigger waste of time than even the standard internet book review represents. The book collects disparate bits of mostly historical trivia from every aspect of civilization. So the question of whether you will enjoy it depends on which section you read. Bryson’s discussion of the oddities of human vitamin needs (apparently humans and guinea pigs represent the sole species unable to produce vitamin C) rates highly on the interesting scale while the secret history of furniture design (Chippendale never made money at it despite his excellent designs) eh, not so much. He crispy handles some tales such as the building of the Erie Canal (”so the Erie Canal remains the only major canal built by people who learned to build canals by building a canal”). While with others, he severely overestimates the reader’s willingness to mire in the scummier parts of civilization (every icky detail of the evolution of human sewage practices from civilizations 10,000 years ago until the book’s publishing date). The one general statement that can be made is that Bryson displays a strong morbid curiosity and dwells overlong in the unpleasantness of early medicine, the spread and symptoms of various diseases and the aforementioned unleavened history of human sewage. Also, the book, or large parts at least, presume a familiarity with England and to some degree Scotland and Wales placenames that may leave American readers asking ”where”,. The book also presents interesting word etymology; for example origins of the term ”big wig”. Apparently, during the ridiculous 150 year period during which men whore wigs, wig size indicated status. A number of these explanations pepper the book and probably represent its most valuable contribution. The book offers some of the moments Bryson specializes in where he presents a story and then joins the readers in their likely reaction: disbelief, horror, amusement, etc. Again, the discussion of the ludicrous men’s 18th century fashions (wigs, heavy makeup, buckles, bows, etc.) provides some moments for Bryson to laugh along conspiratorially with us. So where does ”At Home” rank among the Bryson catalog. It clearly does not live up to his best ”In a Sunburned Country”, or ”A Walk in the Woods”. However, once it gets over a slow start and before devolving into the ugly later pages, it definitely exceeds his dull ”Notes from a Small Island.”. In short, feel free to pick it, read some passages and skip others, put it down, return to it later or not.