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No place like home

Bill Bryson’s cheerful tour through the hallways and rooms of the history of the household leads to a cautionary tale for all

By Buzzy Jackson
Globe Correspondent / October 3, 2010

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All great writing is travel writing: The tale begins in one place, whether metaphorical or geographical, and ends somewhere unexpected. Despite its focus on domestic life, Bill Bryson’s newest book is no exception. What begins as a carefree jaunt through the rooms of a Victorian parsonage ends with a sobering message about the home of all mankind: Planet Earth.

Bryson has long been one of the English-speaking world’s favorite travel writers, but lately he’s largely stayed well off the open road. In “A Short History of Nearly Everything’’ (2003) Bryson hit the library and tackled science — a lot of it — from the origins of the universe to the evolution of human beings. In “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’’ (2006) he time-traveled back into memory to write an autobiography of his childhood. With his new book, there’s no need to go that far. “At Home’’ is ostensibly about his current house, a former rectory in Norfolk, England. “I formed the idea to make a journey around it, to wander from room to room and consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life. The bathroom would be a history of hygiene, the kitchen of cooking, the bedroom of sex and death and sleeping, and so on. I would write a history of the world without leaving home.”

It’s a pretty bold proposal. Writers have a hard enough time convincing the rest of the world that what they’re doing is work without Bryson claiming, “Here was a book I could do in carpet slippers.” Of course the result is much more than that. “At Home’’ is an exhaustive, at times exhausting, catalog of historical fun facts, from the explanation of why we keep salt and pepper on our dining tables to the reason British castles were surrounded by moats. “At Home’’ is replete with the characteristic Bryson wit and good cheer, and while the writing is always entertaining, the book’s narrative arc is occasionally obscured by the welter of individual stories Bryson relates. As he offers up yet another wacky historical figure (“Before becoming an architect Addison [Mizner] led a remarkably exotic life: he painted magic lantern slides in Samoa, sold coffin handles in Shanghai, peddled Asian antiquities to rich Americans, panned for gold in the Klondike”) or oddball factoid (“Within the animal kingdom only humans and guinea pigs are unable to synthesize vitamin C in their own bodies.”), the book begins to resemble a cabinet of Bryson’s personal curiosities. Yet our cheerful host does have at least one pet peeve: the seemingly unstoppable human tendency to discover, then exploit, and finally destroy whatever resource crosses its path.

Bryson first explored the issue in “A Short History’’ when he described the shocking impact of early hominids on their surrounding environment as they hunted to extinction every source of protein in their (our) path. “At Home’’ focuses on the Victorian period and, although it’s a few million years later, nothing has changed. Chapter 7, titled “The Drawing Room,” features a typical object lesson. The renown of 18th-century Chippendale furniture was attributable not only to its design, but to the wood itself: Swietenia mahogani, a distinct species that “has never been matched for richness, elegance and utility. Such was the demand for it that it was entirely used up — irremediably extinct — within just fifty years of its discovery. . . . The world may one day produce better chairmakers than Chippendale and his peers,” Bryson writes, “but it will never produce finer chairs.” The case of the disappearing Swietenia mahogani is no fluke. Given the opportunity to overdo it, humans will.

Bryson provides dozens of examples of human excess. At Elveden, the Guinness family’s estate in the early 20th century, guests “managed to slaughter over a hundred thousand birds every year,” and the “sixth Baron Walsingham once singlehandedly shot 1,070 grouse in a day.” The decadence of a few spoiled millionaires can sometimes be a source of humor (and so it is for Bryson, most of the time) but one is relieved to see him finally lose his hail-fellow-well-met manner and address the consequences of self-indulgence. At the end of the book Bryson ascends to his rooftop balcony to survey the view from his Victorian home. “One of the things not visible from our rooftop,” he writes, “is how much energy and other inputs we require now to provide us with the ease and convenience that we have all come to expect in our lives. It’s a lot — a shocking amount. Of the total energy produced on Earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in just the last twenty years.”

Bryson is constitutionally incapable of writing a jeremiad. His disposition — a union of Iowa niceness with English propriety (Bryson has lived in England for years and was recently awarded an honorary Order of the British Empire from the queen) — is too friendly for that. Yet the message in his recent writing is clear: All is not well here at home — on Earth. “The greatest possible irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither,” he warns. It’s never easy to hear bad news. Perhaps Bill Bryson is just the prophet of doom our species needs: He’s reasonable; he’s convincing; and he can deliver even the worst diagnosis with a reassuring we’re-all-in-it-together tone. Maybe that will get our attention. If the family hearth is a refuge, “At Home’’ is a provocative reminder that we may need one more than ever in the decades ahead.

Buzzy Jackson is the author of “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist.’’ E-mail her at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.

AT HOME: A Short History of Private Life
By Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 497 pp., illustrated, $28.95