Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bryson's "At Home"

(I started on Shelfari, but got long winded.) Why can't I have 2.5 stars? Why isn't there a "meh" choice? More importantly: Why did I finish it, when I know I don't like Bryson?? I missed the book club meeting -- and I think it was sort of an optional title? Speaking of titles, "a short history of private life"?! It's full of notables and industrial revolution - not private life. First, I wondered why this book exists, given terrific actual histories like Clark's The American Family Home; I soon found it was because Bryson wasn't trying to do architectural or social history, he just wanted to snarkily ramble about things of interest to him. And it is a nice compendium of that sort of thing: charming tidbits strung together.

Some tidbits I enjoyed enough to flag:

Gas lights, a boon in so many ways, mildly poisoned the air, stained and corroded things, and under its light, "most plants turned yellow unless isolated in a terrarium." Aha! That's why the Victorians loved them so. Bryson followed that up with, "Only the aspidistra [a plant I had to look up] seemed immune to its ill effects, which accounts for its presence in nearly every Victorian parlor photograph." (p. 123) Neat!

"Almost certainly the most memorable finding of recent years with respect to microbes was when an enterprising middle school student in Florida compared the quality of water in the toilets at her local fast-food restaurants with the quality of the ices in the soft drinks, and found that in 70 percent of the outlets she surveyed the toilet water was cleaner than the ice." (p. 248)

A comment towards the end stuck me as Bryson's personal mission statement: "Although it is unlikely that Mr. Marsham was acquainted with either Moby-Dick or Fossil Lepadidae, both reflected a fundamental change that had lately overtaken the thinking world: an almost obsessive urge to pin down every stray morsel of discernible fact and give it permanent recognition in print." (p. 433; emphasis mine)

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