An entertaining read but not necessarily factual,
This review is from: At Home: A short history of private life (Paperback)
I have just finished reading this offering from Bill Bryson (better late than never) and am torn as to how to quantify fairly both my enjoyment of the book and my frustration with it. Bryson certainly knows how to write in such a manner as to hook the reader and keep him/her reading. While the book is ostensibly the history of his house in Norfolk, room by room, it is in fact a series of digressions or essays on subjects that have taken Bryson's fancy. The scatter-gun approach to the subjects, written in Bryson's inimitable style, works well as the reader never knows what to expect next and is never, therefore bored. Who'd have thought that a chapter on the study would be about household pests rather than books? Some of the topics & nuggets of information BB gives us are well-known; others are not. In all cases, a reader would have difficulty putting the book down until he/she reaches the end of the chapter.
However, as a reader with more than a passing knowledge of some of the topics Bryson examines (architectural history, archaeology and history in general), I found some of his approximations of facts or hasty judgements very irritating. In his discussions of the genius of Palladio and the latter's influence on neo-classical architecture, he summarily dismisses Inigo Jones' Queen's House as "a rather dull square block that brings to mind the central police station in a small Midwestern city". Perhaps in your eyes, Mr Bryson, but not in those of very many others who find it an exquisitely proportioned gem. Christopher Wren only gets a few mentions earlier on but we get great dissertations on the genius of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as architects in this chapter on neo-classical architure ('The Plum Room').
Again, in a later chapter on the nursery where he develops the theme of childhood, Bryson in effect rubbishes the work of Philippe Ariès, author of Centuries Of Childhood by stating that Ariès was not a specialist in the field and quoting Shakespeare in refutation of Ariès' thesis. Whatever mediaevalists may now dispute about Ariès' work, they are not basing their contentions on Ariès not being a recognised historian (which he was, very much so, of the 'Annales' school) nor on selective quotation from Shakespeare or John Evelyn's letter after the death of his son. I could quote Marcus Tullius Cicero on his grief at the death of his daughter; that would not make Roman law favourable to female children.
The other main problem, in my opinion, is that Bryson's focus is very naturally on the UK and US to the exclusion of other influences. Discussing Pitt-Rivers' contribution to archaeology and that of Lubbock towards the preservation of historic monuments in England without even mentioning the impact of the creation in France in 1819 of the post of Inspector of Historic Monuments, reduces the work of both Pitt-Rivers and Lubbock to anecdote, rather than part of a wider current of patrimonial conservation in Europe.
I found Bryson's earlier A Short History Of Nearly Everything fascinating and enjoyable in equal parts, very possibly because I am not a scientist and was more than happy to take his asservations at face value. 'At Home' is to be highly recommended as an excellent read for those without the specialist baggage I found encumbering my reading.