By Louis Bayard
Sunday, October 17, 2010; B06
A Short History of Private Life
By Bill Bryson
Doubleday. 497 pp. $28.95
I tremble sometimes imagining a Bill Bryson book coming to life and walking among us. So rabidly know-it-all! Facts dripping from every fang! Anecdotes oozing from its hideous ululating tongue! "Fearful place, that Centralia. Fear, of course, being a derivation of the Old English 'faeran,' and have you ever noticed that we tell a lie but the truth? And that forks have four tines and not three? A number, by the way, that is roughly a hundred-billionth the number of proteins that would fit in a drop of ink. Although the history of ink isn't nearly as interesting as the history of cement. . . . "
Make . . . it . . . stop.
And then explain why the experience of reading a Bill Bryson book is something you don't want to stop -- a pip and a spree and, almost incidentally, a serious education. And never tiresome, for Bryson has the gift of being the student and not the tutor. His books follow the natural wave patterns of his own curiosity, but they answer the questions that have always, or maybe never, been rustling at the back of your brain -- why the hell are there four tines on a fork? -- and the whole effect is so smooth and amber-liquored you swallow it straight down and, in your tipsilated condition, think: "This is the book I would write. If I had Bill Bryson's wit and epigrammatic suavity and his ability to make each datum ripple seamlessly into the next. If, in short, I were Bill Bryson."
But there's just one, and he's busy. Essayist and explicator, author of the bestselling "A Walk in the Woods" (about hiking the Appalachian Trail, back when that had an innocent connotation) and a host of books on language and science and travel. American by birth, British by inclination, he lives now in a 150-year-old rectory in Norfolk, England, that reeks of history. Except, according to his newest book, every home comes with the same smell. "Whatever happens in the world -- whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over -- eventually winds up, in one way or another, in your house. . . . Houses aren't refuges from history. They are where history ends up."
And so he strolls from kitchen to cellar, from garden to nursery, the better to show us how Western civilization (England, in particular) created domesticity -- how houses became homes and people went about the fraught business of "getting comfortable." A quest that, from the very start, was compromised by the exigencies of survival. The average pre-industrial house, with its "fabulously combustible" straw beds and thatched roofs, could go up in flames at any moment. Lighting in cities such as London was so poor that 18th-century author James Boswell could have sex, unobserved, in the middle of Westminster Bridge. Carpets, curtains, and upholstered and embroidered furniture didn't settle in until after 1750, and household staples such as the paper clip, zipper, safety pin and mousetrap weren't invented until the late 19th century.
Yes, the road from the prehistoric villages of Catalhöyük and Skara Brae to the condo and gated development is long and rough, and pocked with contingency. Separate dining rooms came into being only because hostesses needed to protect their upholstery from food stains. The brass bed? Its initial appeal was that it was thought to be impervious to bedbugs. Bathing, for more than a millennium, was eschewed as anti-hygienic. "By the eighteenth century," Bryson writes, "the most reliable way to get a bath was to be insane." Devotees of popular history will have met some of these stories in the work of Liza Picard, Witold Rybczynski, Daniel Boorstin and others, but it's hard to imagine a better synthesizer than Bryson, or a pithier aphorist. "Nothing you touch today will have more bloodshed, suffering and woe attached to it than the innocuous twin pillars of your salt and pepper set. . . . An individual rat hasn't got great prospects in life, but his family is effectively ineradicable." Bryson on the Eiffel Tower: "Never in history has a structure been more technologically advanced, materially obsolescent and gloriously pointless all at the same time."
Sweetly, sweetly flows the trivia. The largest source of animal protein in the Middle Ages? Smoked herring. The only two creatures that can't make their own Vitamin C? Humans and guinea pigs. The most common cause of accidental death (after car wrecks)? Stairs. The reason smallpox got its name? To distinguish it from the "great pox" of syphilis.
By now, perhaps, you feel that dreaded Fact Monster pulsing in your brain, itching to be heard. "Limpets," it wants to cry, "take more energy to chew than they return in the form of nutrition!" Bryson does cater to this particular pathology -- an earlier volume promised us "A Short History of Nearly Everything" -- but the angel in this case is in the details, the human details, which suggest that even the neatest narrative can't assimilate every mystery.
I give you Augustus Pitt Rivers, the surly 19th-century archaeologist who insisted, against societal taboo, that both he and his reluctant wife should be cremated. "Damn it, woman," he assured her, "you shall burn." (She outlived him and was peacefully buried.) Eccentric Jazz Age architect Addison Mizner used quicklime and shellac to age some leather chairs at Palm Beach's Everglades Club, never guessing that the body heat of the club's guests would turn the shellac to glue. "I spent the whole night," one waiter groused, "pulling dames out of those goddam chairs."
And give a thought, finally, to Thomas Watson, the lab assistant on the other end of Alexander Graham Bell's immortal (and quite possibly apocryphal) phone call: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you." This same Mr. Watson got wealthy off AT&T stock, earned a geology degree from MIT, started a shipyard, converted first to Islam and then to communism before moving at last to England, where he became a Shakespearean actor, good enough to play at Stratford-upon-Avon. He died, Bryson tells us, "contented and rich, at his winter home on Pass-Grille Key, Florida, just shy of his eighty-first birthday in 1934."
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer.