Wednesday, April 18, 2012

52 Books in 52 Weeks - Book Sixteen: At Home

At Home by Bill Bryson

When I was about 8, my family made what was for them a major financial investment: the purchase of a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica. Leatherbound. With a shiny wooden bookcase, a more manageable set of Junior encyclopedias and a big black globe. The day the books were solemnly installed in our den, I promised myself that someday I would read them cover to cover. (Yeah, I was that kind of kid.)

Well, I never did read the Encyclopedia Brittanica, though I gave it what I considered a valiant effort for an 8-year-old. I opened up the first of the 24 volumes one lazy, rainy afternoon, turned to the first of thousands of onion-paper-thin pages, and was fast asleep before I got halfway through the first column. Saltines were not half as dry as the writing style of those ponderous tomes.

Which leads me to this book review …

If only Bill Bryson had been tasked with writing the Encyclopedia Brittanica, I’m pretty sure I would have read it in its entirety … and had a few laughs along the way. He is one of the only authors I know who can take the most mundane of subjects – chairs, stoves, indoor plumbing and potatoes are just a few examples – and share over 500 pages of encyclopedic knowledge in such a way that the reader hates to put it down.

From tales of overeating in the 18th century (the “Golden Age of Gluttony” as he calls it) to a behind-the-scenes look at the architectural excesses of the Gilded Age, the author takes us on a fascinating room-by-room tour of an ordinary English parsonage, taking regular detours to explore other diversions in his quest to offer a compelling history of the typical home – and how it all happened the way it did. 

After reading this book, not only do I have a new appreciation for the incidentals of daily existence, but also a sense of wonder as to how the human species managed to survive and thrive despite what could only be called insurmountable odds. Bill Bryson has a remarkable talent for making the ordinary, extraordinary. I may never look at everyday life the same again.

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