Last night I finished the first book in my reading challenge: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. This is the fascinating book I mentioned earlier, and I had actually begun it before starting my reading challenge, but since I wasn't more than halfway through this 450 page book, and some of the books waiting their turn are much shorter, I decided to count it.
Bryson uses his 1851 rectory in the English countryside as a jumping off point for exploring a wide range of historical topics loosely related to domestic life, everything from adulterated flour to the development of the staircase to the rise to prominance of the flush toilet. He hits on archeology, architecture, and agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, insecticides, and infectious diseases, to name a few. The "aha!" moments abound. If you are a fan of British literature and history, then this book will connect a lot of dots and fill in puzzling social and historical background. The author also touches on some American developments where they apply. I found every page fascinating and Bryson's writing quite witty in the dry manner that I enjoy. I never would have thought reading about building materials and sewers could be so enjoyable.
Bryson does share some tidbits that I wish I didn't now know, such as the rat-to-person ratio in the average city (in America too), what percentage of a six-year-old pillow's weight can be attributed to mites (it's bigger than you think), and what size crack an adult mouse can squeeze through to get into your house (it's smaller than you think). And we now close the lid when we flush the toilet. I'm just saying . . . Especially by the end of the book, I thought he was skimming across the surface of several topics in order to wrap things up quickly. He left me wanting to know more on many points, but that's not entirely bad, is it? The book is nearly 500 pages long as it is.
Don't expect Bryson to spend much time exploring the history of his particular house. While there is a bit of that, the house and its layout are just an excuse to go off on loosely related but thoroughly engrossing tangents suggested by the rooms themselves. Sometimes they are pretty far-flung, but they are always worth the trip.
(Picture: English Cottage IV by Terry Lawrence courtesy of allposters.com)