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Books At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson

A reviewer noted about an earlier book by Bill Bryson that he "could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and make us laugh out loud." It seems that Bryson has taken up the challenge. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, he writes about everything from rushlights to parlours, from shellac to hydraulic cement, from the high intelligence of rats to green wallpaper.

Bryson writes, "The history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly." Sometimes surprisingly and ironically slowly. He is deeply interested in everyone and everything that has contributed to that cozy quest. Although the book's chapters are apparently organized according to the rooms in his house - a 19th-century rectory in the English countryside - his real delight is not in what people did in the rooms, but in what they had in the rooms and how it got there.

He makes brief excursions to the neolithic villages of Skara Brae and Catal Hoyuk to show that the house stretches far back into human time, and he admires the early Meso-Americans who did the prodigious work of domesticating and breeding corn and potatoes. Chiefly, however, he is interested in modernity, beginning with the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, coincidentally the same year his own house was built and the first year in which more British people lived in the cities than in the country.

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Bryson has a preternatural ability to find the telling anecdote, the ironic twist on a story we thought we knew. He notes, for instance, that the tea thrown overboard during the Boston Tea Party represented almost a year's worth of tea for the colony. An average middle-class family in 19th-century London burned a ton of coal a month, which gives a visceral idea of why the air in London was so dirty that midday could look like dusk. And the green in that lovely green wallpaper favoured by William Morris, among others, was coloured with an arsenic compound that often sickened the room's inhabitants; the great U.S. park-maker Frederick Law Olmsted was one person poisoned by his walls.

He even finds memorable one-liners. In recounting the building of the grand Blenheim Palace - which cost eight times what had been estimated - he notes that its owner, the Duke of Marlborough, "was so cheap that he refused to dot his i's when he wrote, to save on ink."

And the book is awash in etymologies. "Daft," for example - as in, "You must be daft!" - was a word used to describe gypsum or other adulterants that were added to sugar and other precious commodities, to stretch the product and increase the profit.

What is missing is reflection on private life itself. It is indeed a comfortable book, but it has little to say about what all this seeking of comfort might mean. Early in the book, for example, he names Father Marsham, the rector who built his house. The mention gives him an opening to dilate on the many contributions of the class of Victorian clergymen. Overpaid and underworked, they took the opportunity to excel as botanists, archeologists, linguists, economists, inventors, pathologists, writers and naturalists.

Of poor Marsham, however, he confesses that we know little or nothing, except that in an age where fewer than 20 per cent of parishioners actually attended church, in Marsham's parish, evidently, 70 per cent did. Bryson notes this in passing, but does not reflect upon it. Rather, he embarks immediately on a review of the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 and the gadgets it displayed.

He likes his people notable. We hear a great deal about the unknown second son of a poor farmer, Joseph Paxton, who rose to design the Crystal Palace. The architects of the great piles get serious consideration, as do landscape gardeners like Capability Brown and Olmsted.

About some people, we learn shocking novelties. William Morris found the Crystal Palace made him physically sick, so much so that he had to run out and vomit in the bushes. Virginia Woolf said her servant reminded her of "a human mind wriggling undressed," while poet Edna St. Vincent Millay remarked of the servants, "They are not really human at all."

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Among the most interesting histories within this history is the story of lighting, from resin-soaked reeds to the electric lamp. Of course, Thomas Edison and his colleagues play a large part, but so do the inventors of the Argand lamp, of limelight and of kerosene lamps. "Rock oil," he points out, was first valued for its use as lamp fuel.

But just where is the private life in all this? Edison first lit his lamps for J.P. Morgan on Wall Street. But all winter long in the countries of northern Europe, to this day, you cannot go to an inn or a home in winter without finding it ablaze with candles. Sure, they have electric light, but they find the candlelight home-like. They welcome you in, the door is shut and the party begins. That, I think, is the sort of place where private life begins.

William Bryant Logan is the author of Oak: The Frame of Civilization and Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.

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