Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bill Bryson's "At Home"

I've enjoyed all the books by Bill Bryson that I've read. He has a style that is both delightful and very readable. He loves detail. And he can tell a good story.

This book uses the 18th century parson's house that Bryson owns in the UK and builds wonderfully descriptive stories about architecture, people, history, objects, and customs. The book is an absolute delight.

Here's a sample where he talks of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington's homes:
Monticello's celebrated contraptions -- its silent dumbwaiters, dual-action doors, and the like -- are sometimes dismissed as gimmicks, but in fact they anticipated by 150 years or so the American love for labor-saving devices, and helped make Monticello not just the most stylish house ever built in America but also the first modern one. But it is Mount Vernon that has been the more influential of the two. It became the ideal from which countless other houses, as well as drive-through banks, motels, restaurants, and other roadside attractions, derive. Probably no other single building in America has been more widely copied -- almost always, alas, with a certain robust kitschiness, but that is hardly Washington's fault and decidedly unfair to his reputation. Not incidentally, Washington also introduced the first ha-ha into America and can reasonably claim to be the father of the American lawn; among all else he did, he devoted years to meticulous effort to trying to create the perfect bowling green, and in so doing became a leading authority in the New World on grass seed and grass.
And this about beds and Shakespeare:
For much of history a bed was, for most homeowners, the most valuable thing they owned. In William Shakespeare's day a decent canopied bed cost £5, half the annual salary of a typical schoolmaster. Because they were such treasured items, the best bed was often kept downstairs, sometimes in the living room, where it could be better shown off to visitors or seen through an open window by passersby. Generally, such beds were notionally reserved for really important visitors but in practice were hardly used, a fact that adds some perspective to the famous clause in Shakespeare's will in which he left his second-best bed to his wife, Anne. This has often been construed as an insult, when in fact the second-best bed was almost certainly the marital one and therefore the one with the most tender associations. Why Shakespeare singled out that particular bed for mention is a separate mystery, since Anne would in the normal course of things have inherited all the household beds, but it was by no means the certain snub that some interpretations have made it.
The above is most interesting as an insight into 16th century customs as is this bit:
In one of his works, John Aubrey,the seventeenth-century historian relates an anecdote concerning the marriage of Thomas More's daughter Margaret to a man named William Roper. In the story Roper calls one morning and tells More that he wishes to marry one of More's daughters -- either one will do -- upon which More takes Roper to his bedroom, where the daughters are asleep in a truckle bed wheeled out from beneath the parental bed. Leaning over, More deftly takes "the sheet by the corner and suddenly whippes it off," Aubrey relates with words that all but glisten lustily, revealing the girls to be fundamentally naked. Groggily protesting at the disturbance, they roll onto their stomachs, and after a moment's admiring reflection Sir William announces that he as seen both sides now and with his stick lightly taps the bottom of the sixteen-year-old Margaret. "Here was all the trouble of the wooeing," writes Aubrey with clear admiration.
A few quotes from the book can't do it justice. You have to read it. It is a delight.

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