Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Digressionist

"At Home - A Short History of Private Life" by Bill Bryson   Doubleday   497 pages   $28.95

Bryson is the kind of guy that you should be warned NOT to ask him, "What time is it?" because he will tell you the history of keeping time, how to make a watch, why Swiss watches are better made than any other country's, what the most durable metal is for the case as well as a dissertation on the merits of a leather vs. a metal band. 

"At Home" is an examination of the Victorian parsonage in Norfolk, Great Britain, in which he and his wife live.  He describes the rooms, the functions assigned to each and from that springboard leaps rather high above the information pool with  information about  agriculture, the invention of electric lights, bat guano and more.  Today I am reading about Jefferson's Monticello and Lincoln's Mount Vernon which are rather far afield from Norfolk. 

Some tidbits gleaned:  Having a well-kept lawn told passers-by that you were well off enough to have a lawn (pretty) and didn't need to conserve that space for a vegetable garden for the family dining table (practical use of space.) 

In medieval times, the only source of heat was an open hearth.  The heat was disseminated in all directions and people could sit on the surrounding rim.  A major disadvantage was the smoke that wreathed the ceilings and drifted below them. 

Fireplaces had been brought to England by the Normans, but the natives didn't like them.  Only one side of the fire was hot; there wasn't nearly as much light from a fireplace as from an open hearth.  People muttered that it was healthier to be "well kippered in wood smoke."

Bryson wrote that had we seen a typical drawing room in the mid-1700s we would have thought we were in a doctor's waiting room.  Chairs were pressed up against the walls.  If company arrived, the number of chairs necessary to seat them were drawn into a circle, everyone sat down and conversation became stilted because, essentially, if you opened your mouth, you were "on." 

It's quite an interesting book for as knowledgeable as it is.  Many "let me explain this to you" books are monumentally, stiflingly boring, but Bryson has a light touch.  He describes the area around his parsonage as ""Where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped."

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