Bill Bryson is a wonderfully entertaining writer. His short book about Shakespeare was superbly written and erudite, and despite covering ground so well trodden he managed to bring new perspectives, as well as demolishing the “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” position devastatingly. I also enjoyed “Notes from a Small Island” and his book on Australia, unimaginatively titled “Down Under”. “A Short History of Everything” was however almost certainly over-reaching himself. So my expectations on approaching “At Home” were high.
Bryson’s starting point is a history of his Norfolk home. Sadly, despite extensive research, he is unable to find anything particularly interesting to say about it. From this point he wanders through his home and uses each location as the starting point for a long digression on loosely themed ideas and thoughts prompted by the room. Sometimes there is some coherence to these, but often not. I was left with the impression of someone struggling to find a framework on which to drape a lot of quite interesting facts, and ultimately failing.
That’s not to say there is not much to divert one on the way through (goodness me) 700 pages. Every page bursts with detail and ideas, and even his asides are noteworthy – so much so that returning to the book today to refresh my memory led me to a re-reading of several sections. I was looking for, and found, the comments on infant mortality, and the attitudes of people in earlier times to children. The argument that because so many people died in childhood parents could not afford the emotional commitment to their children that we give ours today is neatly countered by Bryson.
Imagine an episode of QI without most of the jokes, extended over many days. You have undoubtedly been educated and entertained, and they have done their best to make things coherent, but ultimately it is all fairly superficial. I had a sneaking suspicion that like the QI “elves” Mr Bryson would have had a team of research assistants working with him on this book – pity it didn’t include an editor or two.