At Home: A Short History of Private Life

“I refer of course to the soaring wonder of the age known as the Eiffel Tower. Never in history has a structure been more technologically advanced, materially obsolescent, and gloriously pointless all at the same time.” (At Home by Bill Bryson)

At Home CoverThough wonderfully entertaining and informative, those coming to At Home with the idea that they will be reading a people’s history will be sorely disappointed. While some of Bryson’s points do end up connecting to improvements in the house or various changes in fashion or domestic work, it is not really a history of domesticity, but instead of the British upper and ruling class from the eighteenth century to the turn of the twentieth. Those that are familiar with British history might wish that he had favored more obscure and diverse bits of knowledge as opposed to those so well known. Anyone who has read Salt, The Ghost Map, Devil in the White City, and any of Bryson’s other works will find that they’ve covered most of the ground already. That being said, Bryson is always an excellent writer, and even a reader familiar with much of the material would be entertained by his style and still learn some fascinating facts and figures.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 16 h 38 minutes (Audiobook Quality: Good. Bryson has a slightly nasally voice and strange pseudo-English accent, but one gets used to it quickly)

Ending: The ending to this book was extremely strange. For some reason, Bryson took it upon himself to predict the future of humanity. That prediction was bleak, shocking, and completely unsupported or examined by the rest of the book.

Further Reading: For those interested in actually looking at how the average person lived during Victorian times, you might want to check out The Victorian House by Judith Flanders.

A Gentle Mandness

“The bibliophile is the master of his books, the bibliomaniac their slave.” (Hanns Bhattta, quoted in A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes)

This fascinating history* tells not of The Book itself, but of people who love books – to distraction. To be clear, bibliomanes don’t necessarily read books at all; they simply accrue, amass, and collect them. Yet, I would recommend this book to any modern bibliophile, even if only to put our small-time book collecting into perspective. The history of book collectors manages to tell a, albeit halting, tale of how ancient books were preserved through the middle ages, how they were destroyed and, in many cases, how they came to be disseminated and popularized.

One of the things that I am coming to love about non-fiction is the ability to absolutely immerse yourself in a subject, like learning a foreign language by flying over to the country in question. I am not only absorbed in reading the history of book collectors, but also enrolled in a class entitled The History of the Book; the two of them work together in my head to ensure that I am constantly thinking about The Book and surrounded with interconnecting information. Likewise, when I read A Short History of Nearly Everything while watching the Planet Earth series by BBC, my head was absolutely, and blissfully, stuck in a world that comprised of images and facts about the earth and its inhabitants. It seems like this coinciding of similar topics might be coincidental, but as it keeps happening I am going to hypothesize that once interested in a subject, my mind naturally searches for more ways to connect to it. Either way, I do hope that it keeps happening, for it has been a delightful experience so far. Has anyone else read a non-fiction book while engaging in some other experience in the same subject? What have your results been?

Beverage: As the luxurious cover can attest, this is a book about indulging your passions. Personally, my beverage passion happens to be Tea and so have been indulging in the finest black tea in my possession. But, if you incline more towards the coffee or alcohol end of things, simply pick the best of what you’ve got and you’re on the right track.

Reminds me of… Mark Kurlansky in a way, because it is a history of a rather specific topic, but it is also told in a more reporter-like style (and thus lacks Kurlansky’s particularly insightful clarity of thought).

*By the admission of Nicholas Basbanes himself, the first and second parts of his massive tomb are divided into the historical aspects of bibliomania and the current (1980’s) aspect. For now, the first part is what holds my interest.

The Ghost Map: The story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World

“It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers. Just the names alone read now like some kind of exotic zoological cataglogue: blone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewers-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshers, and shoremen.” (The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson)

If you have any sort of familiarity with this blog, you might be surprised to discover that I’ve suddenly taken up an interest in bacteria – and your reaction would be rather similar to my own. Let’s just say that this is one of those happy times where a book club selection gets you out of your comfort zone and into a place you never thought you’d find yourself.There are many other quotations that I could have used for the above, but I decided to spare my reader’s stomachs from a rather descriptive account of cholera. This is not to say that I didn’t like the book – in fact, quite the opposite is true – but I must admit that if you had seen my face as I read the more gruesome parts, you might have been deterred from engaging in the act yourself.

I made a very important discovery this semester: I have been overlooking non-fiction my whole life. I don’t exactly remember where my dislike of informational texts came from (my intuition is my much-hated high-school history text book and its kin), but the multi-pronged attack from both grad school and my own reading has, I think, finally cured me of my misperception. Non-fiction has a difficult reputation, especially because its very name indicates that it is somehow subservient to fiction, and I can’t help but feel a little ashamed that I let myself be biased against it for so long. So, in the interest of making my reading more democratic in the upcoming year, I am going to make a concerted effort to include informational reading – and if anyone has any suggestions or general familiarity with the genre, I would heartily welcome your comments!

Beverage: Make sure that whatever beverage you choose to accompany this work is either A: Well-boiled or B: alcohol – believe me, as you read about the spread of cholera, you will not want to be drinking plain old water.

Reminds me of… works like Salt and Cod by Mark Kurlansky, because the book describes the history of a relatively small discovery in terms of its long-lasting consequences.

*Purely coincidentally, I ended up getting two books on cholera from the library this week – I am interested to see how this non-fiction reading of it will affect my take on Love in the Time of Cholera. Stay tuned to find out*

Cod

“Many of the tourists are planning to go ‘whale watching.’ They talk of whales as adorable pets, how they flop and dive and make real snoring noise… There is a big difference between living in a society that hunts whales and living in one that views them.” (Cod, Mark Kurlansky)

As with Salt, Mark Kurlansky proves his ability to make an interesting story out of something seemingly unimportant. Reading Mark Kurlansky is like reading a history, an economic treatise, an adventure novel, a book of myths, and a reporter’s documentary all at once, and all focused entirely around one object. The writing is solid, the facts untiringly interesting, and the stories compelling: I believe Mark Kurlansky is one of the few authors I trust entirely with any subject matter. No matter what he writes, I will read it.

I particularly love how Mark Kurlansky doesn’t write from a tourist’s perspective. He does not coddle his material, but treats it with the stout respect of a fisherman. Although his writing doesn’t invoke for me the passion that Moby-Dick did, I still feel like he’s coming from a similar perspective. If whales could still be hunted – Mark Kurlansky would be there.

Beverage: The unerringly good, stable, writing deserves an equally un-finicky tea. I would go with a good daily-green tea, or whichever tea in your collection always turns out perfectly.

Salt

Oh, how I love histories of seemingly insignificant things! If  Mark Kurlansky wrote a history of the world according to onions, oil, lead, peanuts, paper clips or lint rollers, I would read them all with relish. The sheer number of absolutely delightful and relatively useless things you learn from this book is only outnumbered by the quantity of people I’d recommend it to.

What endeared Salt to me was how such out-of-the-way facts, which few would ever care to look up on their own, became gems in the hands of Mark Kurlansky. Left to my own devices, I never would have discovered how rustic and appealing the art of cheese making is. Always on the lookout for potential careers, his description inspired me to ask the question, ‘would I rather do this <insert bland, 9-5 job>, or make cheese?’ after every new option presented itself. For example – would I rather teach or make cheese? Make cheese. Would I rather edit books or make cheese? Hm. A little tougher, I might have to try the former for a while longer.

Beverage: Jasmine tea, or maybe a good daily green tea

Reminds me of: The True History of Tea by Erling Hoh and Victor H. Mair

And a little of: The book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura