At Home With Bill Bryson . . . A Short History?
Bill Bryson's new book At Home: A Short History of Private Life is certainly not short . . . I can't imagine the amount of research that went into it (nor can I imagine how he gets away without citing anything in the actual body of the book) and it is a treasure trove of information about how people lived throughout history, written in impeccable prose that makes you forget how tangential the topics often become; here are some of my favorite bits:
1) Thomas Jefferson bought 20,000 bottles of wine over one eight year period;
2) in the 1700's, English country clergymen subsidized by taxes and tithes had relatively few religious obligations-- and no one went to church-- and so in their spare time they produced an impressive array of intellectual accomplishments including my one of my favorite books-- The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy-- and other notable works such as An Essay on the Principle of Population (Thomas Malthus) and Bayes's Theorem (Thomas Bayes) until the The Church of England finally cracked down on them;
3) the ignorance of the female anatomy among medical men in Victorian England was so profound that Mary Toft, an illiterate rabbit breeder, convinced medical authorities that she was giving birth to live rabbits and perpetuated the hoax for a time before she admitted the fraud;
4) the baseball box score was invented by Henry Chadwick and "K" is short for "struck," which ends with a "K"
5) the treatment of working class children was abominably poor in nineteenth century England and this is exemplified by the fact that the founding of the Society of Preventing Cruelty to Animals preceded the founding of the parallel organization for children by sixty years;
6) in the 1790's it was all the rage to wear artificial moles, called mouches, and at the height of this mania, people's faces looked as if they were covered with flies, and in the 1780's it became "briefly fashionable to wear fake eyebrows made of mouse skin,"
7) I have pushed the boundaries of the sentence to its limit here, but the book is excellent, detailed, and long and deserves such a lengthy treatment . . . and in the end it reminds you that we live in wonderful times, as Bryson's main theme is that for most of history, the poor lived in horrible conditions with death looming around every corner of their dwellings, and the rich often lived absurdly, governed by bizarre styles, fashions, and social rules . . . and they didn't escape death, disease, unhygienic conditions, and general discomfort either . . . so-- if you can-- enjoy a hot shower and some clean water and a warm, lice free bed tonight with the knowledge that this wasn't always the case, but also knowing that all this convenience comes at a price-- it takes a citizen of Tanzania a year to produce the carbon emissions that the average American produces in twenty-eight hours.