Friday 3 December 2010

Bill Bryson on the Home

The ‘LICC Reader’s Guide to...’ is a series from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, published in LICC’s quarterly magazine EG and made available online via the LICC website. It’s designed to aid individuals and small groups in discussing books that LICC believe are worthy of further study. I contributed two for the most recent edition of EG (December 2010): on Bill Bryson’s At Home (pasted below) and Chris Wright’s Mission of God’s People (to follow in a separate post).

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life (London: Doubleday, 2010), ISBN 9780385608275.


‘Looking around my house, I was startled and a little appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two. Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five? There must be reasons for these things.’

Why Read This Book?

In line with current interest in the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘everyday’ across philosophy, sociology, and cultural studies – a phenomenon itself worthy of consideration – Bill Bryson furnishes a fascinating social history of the home. A little rambling and self-indulgent in places, for sure, but eminently readable and never dull.

About the Book: Overview

Essentially, Bryson leads us on a leisurely meander through the Norfolk rectory (built in 1851) where he lives, room by room, using each space as a launchpad for exploring the origins of domesticity, the history of home life, and more besides.

About the Book: Main Themes

History, according to Bryson, is ‘masses of people doing ordinary things’ – eating, sleeping, making love, nurturing children, amusing themselves – and home, he claims, is ‘where history ends up’. A careful look at how we have lived and arranged our habitations not only allows us to discover those things which make home what it is today, but also offers a way of tracing the development of ideas. In this way, the ‘private life’ of the title is necessarily connected to wider accounts of the public sphere too. So, for instance, the chapter on the fusebox takes in the history of lighting, whaling, Britain during the blackout, and the early oil industry.

About the Book: Implications

Home shapes who we are – for good and ill. Whether we understand it primarily as our place of residence or in terms of people – those with whom we have a shared history – experiences of ‘home’ are deeply formative, connoting security and warmth for some and struggle and pain for others. Apart from providing an opportunity to look more closely at the minutiae that make up our everyday lives, Bryson teaches us much about observation, taking an interest in how things we might take for granted – electricity, chimneys, stairs – have revolutionised the way people live.

Questions to Ask While Reading

1. How have homes changed, and would you describe these changes as for the better or the worse?

2. What values about home life emerge in Bryson’s account?

3. As you read, how, if at all, are you looking differently at your home as a result?

Questions to Answer After Reading

1. How does the arrangement of your life in the home reflect your priorities and values?

2. What does the Bible have to say about the significance of home? For instance, how does home feature in the story and teaching of Jesus in the gospels?

3. How might we steer a course between the human need for ‘belonging’, which home helps to supply, and the obsessive drive for independence in home ownership?

4. How might the home function as a place of God’s presence and transformation?

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