Yesterday, I wrote about Memorial Day and the long weekend it has become. For me and my wife, it is an at-home weekend. No trips to the Jersey shore to kick off summer. I took a book off the shelf this morning as part of my cleaning-out process as I sell and give away most of the books I have collected over a lifetime. It is a rather sad activity as I hate to lose books and because the process is about getting older, thinking about moving to a smaller place. There is also the thought that when I am gone my sons will not want these books. Maybe no one will want physical books even for free.
The book I took off the shelf is Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Clearly, the title resonated with me on this at-home weekend. And so, as too often happens, my cleaning paused as I sat down and dipped back into the book.
The COVID pandemic has made a lot of us spend a lot of time at home. I like being home. I like working in the garden, reading and writing inside and outside depending n the weather. I prefer eating at home to a restaurant. And even though I love movies, I have become much more of a home viewer than a theater viewer.
I had read other Bryson books and was ready for his blend of serious thoughts and humorous comments and lots of information both serious and sometimes good for trivia night stuff. (“Why do forks have four tines and not three or five?”) Remember that this is the guy who wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything. This book is very much about home. He does a room-by-room tour through his own house and each room becomes a kind of museum for the domestic artifacts we surround ourselves with to make a house a home.
In one section, he examines the electrical panel, which I grew up to know as the “fuse box.” As a kid, my dad showed me how to know if a fuse had “blown” and how to change a screw-in fuse. Later we got a more modern panel with breaker switches that “tripped” and you just snapped back into place. Bryson points out that if you think about the pre-electrical age, you realize that when we “Open your refrigerator door and you summon forth more light than the total amount enjoyed by most households in the eighteenth century.” I recall many power outages where we would light our supply of candles at night and gather the flashlights and make our way around the house. It gave you an appreciation for electricity in the home that disappeared as soon as the power was restored. When Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey hard in 2012 and we lost power for day or weeks, we really got a taste of home in the days before electricity. Of course, we had battery-powered things, generators and other cheats.
Bryson goes into detail about small things in the home. In his dining room chapter, he gets into spices. “Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon?” On salt, which he calls the mineral “most vital in dietary terms,” he also notes that we consume, “on average, forty times the amount needed to sustain life.” And with pepper, once the dried fruit of a vine that grew only on the coast of India, it was so treasured that ships would “arrive with gold and depart with pepper.” Nutmeg and mace, rare items, came from islands that are now part of Indonesia. Did you know that spices were considered such important commodities that King James I declared himself “King of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Puloway and Puloroon.” Keep that in mind for trivia night.
Bryson (now an OBE, FRS) was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951, but he moved to England in 1977. He worked as a journalist and became a full-time writer. He lived with his family in North Yorkshire, returned to the U.S., and settled in New Hampshire for a few years, but returned to the UK.
This book is about being home but he is generally known as a travel writer. His first travel book is The Lost Continent, where he humorously describes a trip in his mother’s Chevy around small-town America. Neither Here Nor There is about his first trip around Europe. He had a big bestseller about England with Notes From a Small Island. My favorite of his books is A Walk in the Woods which came from Bill’s decision to rediscover America by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Lots of information. Lots of laughs – many coming from or by the way of his walking partner, the out-of-shape Stephen Katz. For the true at-home person this weekend (like Stephen), you could also watch the film adaptation starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte as Katz.