At Home: an unexpected rant.

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s ‘At Home’. I just hit the halfway mark and… I think I’m done. It’s just making me too irritated.

I’ve enjoyed it so far, on the level of ‘here is a loose narrative rambling through things you mostly know, with a couple new facts thrown in’. HOWEVER I have a couple of bones to pick with it.

First of all. It flits between the US and Britain (well, mostly England) in a really disorienting way. You’ll end one paragraph in England, start the other one, only to find he’s talking about something that happened in Wisconsin. It would be less irritating if he had said it was to be a history of home life in England and the US. But no, it’s supposed to follow the ordinary things in his ENGLISH house. So why, when we get to tea, do we spend ONE PARAGRAPH on China. It’s not even properly on it, it’s just like ‘oh, we wanted to buy their tea so we sold them opium and then we took tea to India and then there was a revolution, funny thing, so the government disolved the East India Company.

Um, what. That’s IT?

And yet, in the chapter on ‘the cellar’, we spend half of it in America talking about canals. What, even. The first page has a highly dubious connection between cellars and building materials, and then it’s all wandering around, talking about these fantastic American inventors.

Look, even if you’re not going to talk about China or India (how did he even manage the dining room section without talking about porcelain?) – which you SHOULD because besides being important India at least was a colony. Even then, why not include Canada, or Australia and New Zealand or even freaking IRELAND. There’s about two paragraphs on the potato famine, which do mention that food was leaving ireland while people were starving, ohwhatatragedy, praytababehjaysus. But no exploration of why, which is certainly as interesting as naming random inventors.

He does spend some time in the Kitchen chapter on South America, but mostly in the plundering of it, and talking about things they invented that we could take. Which I guess IS the focus of the book, but I found the tone off-putting. ‘How marvellous, these mysterious brown people! Inventing things! Corn! Potatoes! Great, I’ll take ten!’

Also, he bemoans all the un-known male inventors, but when he mentions a woman or two he notes how extraordinary they are for being successful businesswomen, but there’s none of the ‘and they should be CELEBRATED’ that the men get.

Turns out I’m crosser about it than I thought. It’s disjointed and misleading. Which leads me to my next point. The whole narrative has a whole ‘oh, those old timey people, weren’t they quaint’ feel which I find patronising and disingenuous. A prime example is the several times that he refers to ‘stale urine’ as an ingredient, or as used in laundry.

Oh, you mean ammonia, Bill? A chemical that we use today in all the same processes, that happens to be what you get when urine goes stale? Oh, how foolish of those oldetimes peoples, to use a readily available resource that can otherwise be a pain to dispose of, to MAKE THINGS.

Any-waaays. I would give it a miss. It’s not terrible, but it’s not good. Instead, readVictorian House, by Judith Flanders. I highly recommend this book*, and Bryson has copied the room-by-room format and half of the information, anyway. He references it many times, and a lot of the actual informative sections read like he’s skimmed the surface material off of Flander’s books. I don’t mean he’s stolen it, I mean that the good bits in Bryson’s book are better in Flander’s. Or you could read Consuming Passions, by the same author, although I found that denser. Because Victorian House is room by room, it’s easier to pick up and put down without loosing the thread of things.

Or, if you want something as light as Bryson’s work, but better written and more thoughtful, you could read Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, which is very easy to read. It alternates a people-level view of the cholera epidemic with a broad sweeping view of life, science, and social structure at the time. I ALSO highly recommend this one, to the extent that I’ve bought it three times because I keep lending it to people who lose it.

TL;DR give Bryson a miss. And Bill – if you wanted to write a book called ‘Why American Inventors Are So Great’, you should have written that book.

*It’s in the ‘women’s history’ section of my library, which makes me SO MAD. Because only women live in houses? I don’t even know.

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10 thoughts on “At Home: an unexpected rant.

  1. umm, has anyone ever suggested you think too much :). (In a nice way). I get frustrated with books too at times. But, I hate not finishing them. That’s an awkward place to be- frustrated with the author- but ‘what if’ there’s a turnaround? I wouldn’t want to miss the turnaround! Thanks for your critical analysis, I wont bother with that book, then, huh.
    Also, I tell you (and myself)- anger at the book- wasted energy, wasted emotion. It’s inanimate and the author doesn’t care.

  2. Thanks for the book review(s)! I haven’t read much on that part of history, so now I know where to make an enjoyable start (and where not to).

    I was once surprised that an author responded promptly to a blog post I wrote (not Bill Bryson, admittedly). At least your criticisms are out there for people who Google/search for info on his book.

  3. Huh, I enjoyed ‘At Home’ a lot. I only read it a few months ago but I can hardly remember a thing about it, so I can’t really argue your points one way or another. I suspect that I may be guilty of not thinking enough rather than ‘too much’ about the books I read.

    I’d be interested to know if you’ve liked anything else by Bryson – it seems most people either love him or hate him

    1. I don’t think it would have bothered me except that I’d read the Victorian House and Consumming Passions – which are basically better, earlier versions. It’s an ok book, but once I noticed the US thing, it just started to bug the heck out of me. It’s all pervading and I couldn’t ignore it. I was hoping to think about it too little, to be honest! And I found I couldn’t. I definitely don’t think that No One Should Ever Read It. Just that it probably shouldn’t be taken as well-researched, academic truth. I don’t think anyone is going to use it as their only source for their thesis, or anything, so we’re fine.

      I have really liked Bryson in the past – I own about five of his books. But I think I might be done with him in general, too. I read one of his short pieces books, and that was fine. But I am finding his tone a bit… wuffly and bemused and a bit unconsciously condescending. I remember having a bit of a rage when he made some comment, at the end of an essay about how complex pictogram languages like Chinese are, that he prefers English because you can do crosswords in it.

      Is that SERIOUSLY the best you can come up with? I’m glad I don’t speak chinese, because: crosswords. It’s the same thing that bugged me with At Home – what I have is better cos it’s mine. Which is fine, but I find myself disagreeing too often for it to be relaxing.

      I should re-read his Down Under. I remember that being my favourite of all the ones he’s written. Perhaps his ‘it’s better cos it’s mine’ tone is less noticeable when it’s something you share his affection for?

  4. I read it last year in hospital after surgery and mucho blood loss. I found it rather disjointed and superficial and thought it was “just me” being not-quite-right then. I wasn’t interested enough to re-read it in more normal circumstances and gave it to my sister. Not his best book by a looong shot.

  5. I haven’t read it, and recently foundered when reading his book about America, but I did adore Mother Tongue.

    But what I really wanted to say was : Excellent Rant. I give it 10 out of 10. Enjoyed it thoroughly.

  6. Can I suggest you post your review to somewhere like Amazon? I feel it ought to be more widely distributed.

    I haven’t read At Home, but if I were considering buying it, these are the sort of things I would like to be aware of beforehand.

  7. I’ve loved lots of Bryson’s books, but I haven’t read this one (and now probably won’t).

    That was a thoroughly enjoyable rant. You’re deliciously eloquent when riled. (I could hear your voice in my head as I read). I hope you went for a brisk walk in the fresh air after you wrote it.

  8. You should write more book reviews! I’ve only read A Walk in the Woods and found it entertaining and frustrating and a bit pathetic. The other books you mention sound really interesting, I’m adding them to my summer reading list!

  9. Some of his books are very funny (or were the first and only time I read them) but I abandoned At Home 1/3 of the way through. I had high hopes but it was just.plain.waffle and not at all as interesting as I was led to believe.

Whadya reckon?

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