Engrossing literary journey

2011-06-01 00:00

I HAVE been a Bill Bryson fan ever since I first read his travelogue, Notes from a Small Island . The book gives an outsider’s perspective on the British and Britain — and as I was living in the United Kingdom at the time, it seemed to speak to me and more often than not had me laughing out loud.

I’ve read many of his works since then, and was delighted when At Home landed on my desk for review. But despite my fondness for this American author, even I have to admit that it’s not the easiest book to read. Bryson gives you so much information that you simply have to stop and digest his words.

The premise of At Home is one that only Bryson would ever have thought up – how and why did human beings come to live in homes and enjoy comforts like beds, bathrooms and even spices?

His musings stem from discovering a tiny bit of the former rectory in Norfolk, that he now calls home, which he knew nothing about, and over the course of the book you’re taken on a virtual tour of that home — with plenty of diversions, digressions and odd tangents along the way.

Among the many thoughts he offers is — why did we choose salt and pepper as our favourite spices? Why do forks have four tines? And who invented stairs? Apparently, the latter were first developed for use in mines because the miners found it impossible to use ladders with their hands full.

I also love the way Bryson ponders how words came into being, for example the word “room” only appeared in the Tudor period, while the words “upstairs” and “downstairs” only started being used in the 19th century — despite stairs having existed for several centuries by then.

The book covers both the UK and the United States, and includes references to great designers and landscapers, like Robert Adam, whose designs changed interiors of homes forever; Thomas Chippendale, whose furniture is worth a small fortune today; and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown – the man most responsible for changing the landscape of Britain’s great estates.

But, what I loved most is the quirky nature of his writing, which constantly had me giggling, and occasionally sharing the joke with my long-suffering other half. At Home is a truly engrossing literary journey — and the best bit is that you don’t have to leave the couch to enjoy it.

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