A Book Review:
At Home, by Bill Bryson

My daughter Maya got me this book for Christmas last year, and it took me a while to pick it up. But when I did I was so grateful. (Thank you, Maya!). While it’s described as a history of private life as revealed through the rooms of a house in England built in the 1800s, it’s really a bit of a rambling collection of fascinating stories of how life has changed over time. These are stories that are a powerful reminder that it wasn’t so long ago that we were complete ignorant idiots, which is always a good thing to remember when we think we are so smart today. But it’s also a story about how intelligence isn’t always linear or simultaneous. There have been periods of brilliance and innovation that have sometimes gotten lost or buried, too.

Some of the most interesting things I learned from this book are the following:

  • Thomas Jefferson was the “father” of the American french fry. He was the first person on record to slice potatoes the long way and then fry them up. However, his house Monticello was never even remotely finished in his lifetime, and it took a hundred years more for some ladies to save it and finish it and make it what it is today.
  • At one point in British gardening history, it was quite the fashion to build a “hermitage” and have a real live hermit live in it. A hermit could make a hundred pounds a year as long as he didn’t cut his hair or nails or speak. Showing up at the local pub for a pint was grounds for firing.
  • The whole frenzy about contaminated food has been around a long time and for good reason:

“Almost nothing, it seems, escaped the devious wiles of food adulterers. Sugar and other expensive ingredients were often stretched with gypsum, plaster of paris, sand, dust, and other forms of daft, as such additives were collectively known. Butter reportedly was bulked out with tallow and lard. A tea drinker, according to various authorities, might unwittingly take in anything from sawdust to powdered sheep dung… Sulphuric acid was added to vinegar for extra sharpness, chalk to milk, turpentine to gin. Arsenite of copper was used to make vegetables greener or to make jellies glisten. Lead chromate gave bakery products a golden glow and brought radiance to mustard. Lead acetate was added to drinks as a sweetener, and red lead somehow made Cloucester cheese lovelier to behold, if not safer to eat.”

One of my favorite stories—because it’s the same type of story I see played out again and again in the world, EVEN TODAY!—is the story of cholera. I’m not talking about cholera itself so much as the process by which it takes FOREVER for the truth about something to get through the thick, and perhaps lead-poisoned, skulls of most of humanity. When cholera first started to kill hundreds and thousands of people in London, the cause was determined to be…bad smells (or “miasma,” as it was known). Well, a guy named John Snow did the first official epidemiological study of cholera and determined it was caused by feces in water, not the smell of feces in water. He published his findings in 1849.  Those findings were ridiculed and confidently rejected by an official Parliamentary Select Committee. Snow died never knowing he was right, and thousands more died because they didn’t benefit from knowledge of the right reason for their disease.

It all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? Well, except the part about the hermits.…

 

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