Some weeks ago a favorite uncle of mine died at ninety-three; not long before that I experienced the death of my mother. In my family the “old guard” is now dying off and those of us who used to sit at the kids’ table find ourselves trying to replace them. We (my siblings and cousins) do not feel particularly aged and wise and are unsure of exactly what we are to guard. I don’t for a minute think we could really fill the shoes of those we have lost. Uncle Dean and my mother, for instance, were passionate life-long learners with a fondness for history, old houses and churches, museums of any kind, battlefields, monuments, genealogy, and travel. And since they loved sharing their knowledge, a visit with either was always an enjoyable and informative experience.
Reading Bill Bryson’s At Home took me back to those days. The author, who lives in a former English rectory built in 1851, devotes each chapter to a different room in this fascinating house as well as a couple of chapters to the yard and gardens. As we move from room to room, Bryson, our guide, expounds upon the history of everyday objects associated with each. He does this in such an amiable manner that it feels as if we are visiting an intimate but extremely erudite friend. As you read, you find yourself saying, “I didn’t know that. How did I not know this?” I especially liked the explanations of the origins of familiar words and phrases , such as “sleep tight,” which I said to my own kids every night and never once wondered where it came from. And why do we say “room and board” when we mean that meals are included? Why do we call someone the “chairman of the board”? Because of Bryson, I will never again hear these words in the same way.
Another thing I liked about this book was the way in which Bryson brought life and character to various nineteenth-century architects and landscapers, brick layers and cement makers, showing how the failures and successes of these craftsmen and artisans still contribute to the comfort and style of the we inhabit today. Also, there are facts about famous people such as Alexander Graham Bell, Queen Victoria, and Thomas Jefferson that I am sure will not be known by most readers. It is also amazing how many great innovators and creative types died in penury.
One often hears people today complain that modern life is too messy and complicated compared to some simpler past. Reading Bryson dispels that fallacy; humanity apparently was always foolish and superstitious. Indeed, after reading this book, one has to wonder how anyone ever accomplished anything of significance. Bryson exposes the clay feet upon which thinkers, explorers, rulers, and inventors stood.
Read this book; it is good for you. It is good for your soul; it is good for your children. It makes you grateful to be a part of the human experience. I know that my mom and Uncle Dean would have loved this walking tour of an old English rectory, so, in a way, I did it for them, and now I’m ready to take up my position in the “old guard.”
Points to ponder and discuss
1. What is it about Bryson’s style that makes it both accessible and informative?
2. What facts did you find especially interesting?
3. How can we make history more interesting to our young people?
Upcoming Literary Events
March 21 – Bel Air Barnes and Noble Classics Book Club – Join the discussion for Robert Graves’s masterpiece I, Claudius. All are invited.
April 15 – Jarretsville Library – Fireside chat with author Cornelia Nixon- 7 -9pm. Tickets $25.
Next Dagger Book Club selection – “Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon