The English-speaking world’s favourite writer on everything but the title of the book
Rashmee Roshan Lall | TNN
Engaging, earnest, eccentric, energetic, entertaining. The five ‘e’ words that describe one of the English-speaking world’s favourite writers, Bill Bryson. Notice the absence of ‘e’ for expert. Bryson is not – and has never claimed to be – an expert on anything particularly. He is ever the garrulous generalist. This is something of a problem with “At Home”, enthusiastically and fascinatingly described as a journey around the domestic empire each one of us rules over. “A book I could do in carpet slippers,” Bryson enthuses at the outset of 544 pages on matters as abstruse – but essential – as why forks have four tines, not three or five and why every household routinely has a salt and pepper shaker on the dining table rather than pepper and cardamom or salt and cinnamon.
He carries on in the same vein, starting in the hall, passing through the kitchen, scullery and larder, onward into the drawing room, diningroom, study, bedroom and bathroom and finally depositing the reader in the attic after an exhaustingly mad dash across continents and centuries. Bryson careers off wildly in various directions – to the English county of Derbyshire to deliberate on “prodigy houses” such as the grand 16th century Hardwick Hall; to Massachusetts in the US to marvel at “the civilizing conveniences” of blocks of ice “that increased the range of food storage possibilities”; to 18th century Ireland to muse on the monumental failure of the potato crop; to western Pennsylvania to ponder the first, remarkable search for oil in the 19th century. And on and on and on.
The reader is informed about the 18th and 19th-century clergyman’s remarkable wealth, leisure and propensity to invent and break new ground, not least the submarine, the first Jack Russell terrier, the first scientific work on dinosaurs. There is some explanation of the curious fact that the ancient world grew more hemp than it needed for rope and sails – people used it to get high! Detail is provided on Queen Elizabeth I’s larcenous propensities – “…Her Majesty admired (a courtier’s) silver cutlery and a salt cellar and, without a word, dropped them into the royal handbag.” Bryson digresses constantly and in full measure. There is nothing so slight that does not require him to paw energetically through the junk box of fascinating facts; there is no trivia he will pass up; he never loses an opportunity to be waylaid by idle curiosity.
The result is not really “a short history of private life”, the book’s somewhat pompous sub-title. It is an overlong account of almost any idea that might possibly have entered Bryson’s head. This is why we do not really come away with a thorough understanding of say, how today’s kitchen evolved to its gleaming, well-appointed efficiency. Contrast this with Witold Rybczynski’s “Home, A Short History of an Idea”. Rybczynski, a British-born, US-based architect with an inquiring mind, is professor of Urbanism and Real Estate at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1986, he published a relatively slim, 272-page volume on five centuries of the very idea of “home”. With undeniablemastery, he took readers through homes great and small, from the smoke-filled manor halls of the Middle Ages to today’s Ralph Laurendesigned environments. Rybczynski explained how social and cultural changes influenced styles of decoration and furnishing and why “an Indian household may have a dining room with table and chairs, but when the family relaxes during the hot afternoon, parents and children sit together on the floor…a Canadian carpenter works standing up, at a bench. My Gujarati friend Vikram, given the choice, prefers to work sitting down, on the floor.”
But then Rybczynski is an expert. Bryson is Everything Else.