About halfway through Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, one can’t help but come to a couple of stark conclusions. One, that most of humanity’s domestic life, for the vast majority of time time we had domestic lives, was full of suffering and misery the likes of which we moderns can barely imagine. Two, that the tiny percentage of the species blessed with an overabundance of money and/or status have not been content to simply live well, but have wasted vast economic resources to spoil and aggrandize themselves in ways that would make Ozymandias cringe.
Bryson is a wonderful writer, and his storytelling is as usual conversational while remaining high-minded, as he clearly glories in his research and discoveries while allowing the space for the reader to catch up to him.
But his subject, I suppose, necessitated the retelling of these two central themes I’ve mentioned: The misery of the underclasses (disease, vermin, cold, being overwhelmed by feces, etc.) and the unabated vanity of the rich (who also, it should be noticed, were subject to disease and other unpleasantness, but often in Bryson’s telling faced ruin by their own ignorance or hubris). But if it is necessary, it is also relentless. Story after story, anecdote after anecdote is a tail that either makes one feel deep pity for those who are crushed under the weight of their poverty or nausea over the largess of the aristocracy. In between are the triumphs, the brilliant ideas, the advances, but it becomes almost exhausting when one contemplates the mayhem from which the victories emerge.
Here’s a good summation from the book, a quote from Edmond Halley (of comet fame), that I feel gets to the heart of the long crawl of human domesticity — human daily life — over the centuries.
How unjustly we repine at the shortness of our Lives and think our selves wronged if we attain not Old Age; where it appears hereby, that the one half of those that are born are dead in Seventeen years.… [So] instead of murmuring at what we call an untimely Death, we ought with Patience and unconcern to submit to that Dissolution which is the necessary Condition of our perishable Materials.
And in the meantime, invent the telephone and the flush toilet and make it a little easier.
A recommended read; a slog, but a delightful slog.