Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Book talk - Bill Bryson: At Home.

This has been hanging around in my drafts for months now - I had intended to read some more in the book, but I am not going to get around to that anytime soon. So here comes a review of the not-fully-read book. I hope you enjoy it anyways.

I picked up this book when I was last in England, since there was one of those typical "buy more books"-deals and I still had some English money left and some space in the luggage (and since bookdepository got bought by amazon, I tried to stock up in brick-and-mortar stores).

I had heard of Bill Bryson, and I knew that he wrote travelogues or something like that. Now travel books are not what I usually read, so I had never looked into them - but a history of private life? That tickles my fancy.

I started reading with high hopes to find a nice, thoroughly entertaining book about history. And I am now more than half-way through the book (in the "Garden" chapter), which has been enough for me to sum it up and do a review thingie before I put this book away.

Bill Bryson writes in a style that I find easy to read and with a pleasant voice, and I absolutely love the idea of wandering through a bit of our daily life and looking at details and their history. I also like history that isn't bone dry and history that looks at bits and pieces usually overlooked, like daily life stuff. And I'm not averse to some snark. So I should love this book, right? Well.

Bryson rambles on about things - inventions, architecture, how people did things a long (or not-so-long) time ago. However, I get the impression that often he is just telling some fact or factoid that he picked up somewhere, and he does not ask himself why things would have been done like that. Humans do some pretty weird stuff and have done so for ages - and they might do things that are laborious or long-winded or expensive or seemingly mean, but they never do so without a reason. It might be a psychological reason rooted somewhere in their culture, or a religious one, or come from any other socio-cultural reason, but there is something behind it. And this is what I, personally, find enormously interesting - and what seems not to interest Bryson, who prefers to state the fact and then sneer at the weird folks from back then who did such stupid stuff.

At least this is what it feels like for me when he tells things about stuff folks did back then. And there are some things written in his book where I just can't agree, or where I know a very, very different version, or where he got old outdated theories or misconceptions and is in fact plain wrong.

For instance, he states that "making food out of plants is hard work" - and that converting grasses like wheat etc. into edibles is a complex task, because "wheat is useless as a food until made into something much more complex and ambitious like bread" (p. 66). Ah. Well, first of all, when I think of wheat or even one of its early forms, I don't think of the grassy stalks - but of the seeds, which is a completely different thing. And then it is perfectly possible to eat wheat or other cereal without turning it into bread first: fresh seeds can be eaten raw, and they can generally be cooked and eaten, or soaked in water and eaten before or after they start germinating. This may not be such a staple as bread is today, but it is still possible. And it is, in fact, nutritious. And not hard work.

And then, of course, his textile "explanations". And his view of the middle ages.
Upon the death of a serf the lord was entitled to take a small personal possession, such as an article of clothing, as a kind of death duty. Often peasants only owned one main item of apparel, a type of loose gown [...]. The fact that that was the best that a peasant had to offer, and that the lord of the manor would want it, tells you about all you need to know about the quality of medieval life at many levels. (p. 84)
Erm, what? WHAT? Do I even need to write anything about that here? Dark ages, stupid people, all only playing with piles of mud or what?

But what I really find irksome in a history-ish book is the snark about those stupid people back then. As if we today were so, so much better, and smarter, and whatever. There's bits and pieces, facts and factoids jumbled together, there is no clear line to the book, and it's mostly looking down on history as a time that was, yes, interesting, but so very yesterday. Sometimes the condescending look is not very clear, but it's implied that life was so, so much worse back then. Colours were not fast, meats that were non-delicious were eaten because the delicious sheep and cattle were needed for work, furniture was plain and noncomfy, beds were either infested with lice or so toxic they were also harmful to their occupant, and so on.

Plus, once I find some outdated theories presented as current facts, I sort of get suspicious and will lose my trust in the book. And that also cuts down on how entertaining I find a read. It's possible that Bryson's research on the modern times was a lot more accurate than regarding the medieval period, but regarding medieval times, I believe he's way, way off at many places.

I had planned to write a much longer review, and I had in fact marked lots and lots of pages with examples of stuff... but I have no real desire to read more in that book, andI think I have made enough of a point to stop.

The concept of the book - looking at the house, the home, and tracing things back to their origins, still sounds like a brilliant thing to me. With a little more research and a lot less snark and condescension, this would have been a brilliant read. As it is now - I really cannot recommend it. And that makes me a bit sad. (Also - I could have lugged home a different book from the two-fer offer. One that I might have liked better. Meh.)


inge said...

What Bryson should get before writing about history is a TARDIS. He's much better writing about what he has seen himself, IMO.

Alena said...

I read At Home and really liked it. Yes, he is not a historian, but I found his way of connecting historical facts with modern life thought provoking. I also love his grammar and sentence structure. He writes really well. I'd rather read a group of facts as presented by Bryson, than the same group of facts presented by almost anyone else.

Gillian said...

Zombie Ancestry History or When Wit is Not Enough. When Bryson understands things, he's wonderful - when he doesn't, he misses the boat entirely.