Another entertaining travel book from Bill Bryson, this time through his home. Everyday objects and domestic rituals provide the launch pad for a brilliant excursion into social history.
Why, asks Bill, is the parish church next door to his Norfolk home sinking into the ground? It turns out the church is not sinking, the land is rising. About twenty thousand people are buried about it. Counting the neighbouring parishes, he finds himself surrounded by a quarter of a million burials. All this in a quiet rural village “where nothing much has ever happened.”
The introduction is an amuse-bouche to a buffet of bizarre and unlikely stories that are all true.
Our delight and confusion with domestic technology offers many anecdotes that resonate today. Here’s a couple of paragraphs about the telephone. He could be talking about the world wide web.
For most people the telephone was such an incomprehensible novelty that Bell had to explain exactly what it did. ‘The telephone,’ he wrote, ‘may be briefly described as an electrical contrivance for reproducing in different places the tones and articulations of a speaker’s voice so that Conversations can be carried on by word of mouth between persons in different rooms, in different streets or in different Towns ... The great advantage it possesses over every other form of electrical apparatus is that it requires no skill to operate the instrument.’
Phones were orginally seen as providing services - weather reports, stock market news, fire alarms, musical entertainment, even lullabies to soothe restless babies. Nobody saw them as being used primarily for gossip, social intercourse or keeping in touch with friends and family. The idea that you would chat by phone to someone you saw regularly anyway would have struck most people as absurd.
For me, this book was a first. I read At Home on an iPad using the Kindle app, the book having downloaded while I had my feet up on the couch and a lazy desire for an easy read. The experience wasn't much different from reading a printed book. Until you went outside and found the back-lit screen couldn't compete with the sun. That annoyance is made up for by an index that takes you to each reference's page with a tap, along with the ability to take notes and so build your own index.