Bryson tackles science in his brilliant “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. This new book could as easily be categorised as “a short history of nearly everything else”. The Times
In top form again
By Roger Childs
Bill Bryson is the greatest non-fiction writer of the age. A bold claim; can anyone come up with an author to challenge him?
The American born scribe now comfortably settled in Norfolk, England, has an insatiable curiosity about things and the superb skills to research and write about them.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life is another tour de force, as it examines all the rooms in their 1851 Rectory in East Anglia, and then shoot off at tangents on what they were used for, and any history worth telling about those activities.
Expounded in the usual fascinating Bryson style, this lavishly illustrated 553 page volume is absolutely magnificent!
Bryson never disappoints
The man was born in Des Moines in featureless Iowa, and as he puts it: somebody had to be!
However, there is nothing featureless about his writing.
The Bryson oeuvre is very impressive as he has written on an amazingly wide range of subjects from Shakespeare and 1920s America to incredibly thorough studies of American English, the history of science and inventions, and travels in the Appalachians, Australia, Europe, England and the good old US of A.
Not only do you get a fascinating coverage of all these subjects, but it is told with wit, humour and a close attention to detail. You get the weird and the wonderful, the sallacious and the splendid, the familiar and the fantastic.
If you haven’t sampled a Bryson yet, don’t hesitate as you will not be disappointed and may even become obsessed!
At Home is great
The Bryson’s current residence was completed in 1851, the same year as the amazing Great Exhibition in London which featured the revolutionary Crystal Palace. So chapter one sets the tone with coverage of this momentous event and then it’s on to the history of houses and Skara Brae in the Orkneys.
The topics Bryson covers would total in the hundreds, but the reader is never overwhelmed.
The writer seamlessly move from one strand to another and selects highly interesting case studies as he does justice to a wonderful array of inventors, designers, planners and innovators who were determined to solve society’s problems and set new standards.
Along the way he covers some of the familiar wonders of the world like the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as the inventions which shaped the modern world such as the telephone, steel, vaccines, hydraulic cement, soap, the spinning jenny, lighting etc …
He points out that on the road to every successful innovation, there were failures and sometimes disasters. Sadly many of the key figures in the march of civilization never got the credit they deserved and some died in obscurity.
Life and death
As you read At Home you wonder how human kind actually survived. There were so many disasters along the way such as plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, floods, fires, and explosions, not to mention rats, bats, locusts, yellow fever and famine.
For centuries medical knowledge was very limited and if you wanted to survive it was best to avoid doctors and hospitals.
It is extraordinary that it wasn’t until the 19th century that medical staff routinely washed their hands.
A treat in store
The joy of At Home is that you can read it a chapter at a time, if you wish, then pick it up any time later.
Bryson devotees who haven’t read this one are in for a real treat, and for those who need an introduction into the fascinating writing of Iowa’s greatest son, this is a great place to start.