Saturday, December 4, 2010

Who knew salt, forks, and bedbugs were this interesting?

Alright, I'm trusting you to keep quiet here: don't let the Fine Print advisory board know, but I'm once again crashing the fiction party with a post about non-fiction.  I promise there's a good reason.  I have a very important question to which I need an answer: is there anything that Bill Bryson can't make interesting?  This is a man who made walking the Appalachian Trail, Iowa in the 1950s, and chemistry, physics, and geology (and a host of other scientific things that typically scare me) not only informative, but downright entertaining. 
In his latest release, At Home: A Short History of Private LifeBryson turns his attention to the fascinating world that is our everyday lives.  Have you ever wondered why we keep salt and pepper on the table rather than some other spices?  Or why there are four tines on a fork rather than two?  Yeah, I never had, either.  Still, it was fascinating.  When reading any of Bryson's books, there are a lot of etymological nuggets, which is lovely for word geeks like me.  I've been going around giving all sorts of unwanted information to everyone who doesn't ask, like: why we have a "pantry," why we talk about "room and board," and what the difference is between a "rector" and a "vicar."  I also never knew I was interested in things like the materials used for building homes or when and why servants started wearing uniforms until Bryson kindly pointed out to me that I really should be.  I would've been more comfortable if Bryson's focus on his study was on something like the role of books or work in daily living, rather than as the room in which he catches the most mice.  I'm sure that someone finds the prodigious procreation of rats, mice, bedbugs,and other creatures fascinating, but as a warning derived from my own experience: this is definitely not the chapter to read in bed right before attempting to sleep. 

The room-by-room structure felt, at times, a bit forced.  For example, much of the chapter on the bedroom focuses on graveyards and burial practices...I suppose it brings a new light to the term "the big sleep."  It reads as more of a history of British and American culture than specifically the history of the home (and, in an odd way, pairs nicely with the Daily Show's new book, Earth (the book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race).  But, once I got over my initial thinking that the chapter about a room would be largely about that room, this examination of how all the facets of our ordinary lives have quite interesting histories is definitely worth a read.  Check it out, get comfortable in your favorite reading spot and learn how that chair came to be in your house in the first place.

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