Blake Snow

content advisor, recognized journalist, bodacious writer-for-hire

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At Home: A not-so riviting history of domestic life

athomeBecause he wrote this masterpiece, I consider Bill Bryson one of the greatest non-fiction writers of our time. And while his similar At Home: A Short History of Private Life is brimming with domestic insights, it’s not as powerful or focused as the former. Three stars out of five. I’d only recommend it to die-hard home owners. My favorite passages:

  • That’s really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things… eating, sleeping, having sex, or endeavoring to be amused.
  • So sedentism meant poorer diets, more illness, lots of toothache and gum disease, and earlier deaths. What is truly extraordinary is that these are all still factors in our lives today.
  • The dining table was a plain board called by that name. It was hung on the wall when not in use, and was perched on the diners’ knees when food was served. Over time, the word board came to signify not just the dining surface but the meal itself, which is where the board comes from in room and board.
  • It has been estimated that 60 percent of all the crops grown in the world today originated in the Americas. These foods weren’t just incorporated into foreign cuisines. They effectively became the foreign cuisines. Imagine Italian food without tomatoes, Greek food without eggplant, Thai and Indonesian foods without peanut sauce, curries without chilies, hamburgers without French fries or ketchup, African food without cassava. There was scarcely a dinner table in the world in any land east or west that wasn’t drastically improved by American foods.
  • Had Thomas Jefferson and George Washington merely been plantation owners who built interesting houses, that would have been accomplishment enough, but in fact of course between them they also instituted a political revolution, conducted a long war, created and tirelessly served a new nation, and spent years away from home. Despite these distractions, and without proper training or materials, they managed to build two of the most satisfying houses ever built.
  • People in good shape fall more often than people in bad shape, largely because they do a lot more bounding and don’t descend as carefully and with as many rest stops as the tubby or infirm.
  • When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, coined the phrase “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” in a sermon in 1778, he meant clean clothes, not a clean body. With respect to bodily cleanliness, he recommended only “frequent shaving and foot washing.”
  • Throughout many periods of history—perhaps most—it can seem as if the whole impulse of fashion has been to look maximally ridiculous. If one could be maximally uncomfortable as well, the triumph was all the greater. Dressing impractically is a way of showing that one doesn’t have to do physical work.
  • For a century and a half, men got rid of their own hair, which was perfectly comfortable, and instead covered their heads with something foreign and uncomfortable. Very often it was actually their own hair made into a wig… The more substantial the wig, the higher up the social echelon one stood—one became literally a bigwig.
  • So Whitney’s gin not only helped make many people rich on both sides of the Atlantic but also reinvigorated slavery, turned child labor into a necessity, and paved the way for the American Civil War. Perhaps at no other time in history has someone with a simple, well-meaning invention generated more general prosperity, personal disappointment, and inadvertent suffering than Eli Whitney with his gin.
  • There can be few more telling facts about life in nineteenth-century Britain than that the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals preceded by sixty years the founding of a similar organization for the protection of children.
  • It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.