I didn't get what I expected from this book. I had picked it up assuming it would be part memoir and part history of Bryson's own home in England which is an old rectory. Instead I got an actual history lesson in everyday life for Brits and Americans going as far back, in some cases, as the 16th century. Bryson covers how science and the inventive spirit led to the modernization that changed day-to-day life and how trends in professional options - like becoming an architect or an archaeologist - changed what we knew about and how we looked at our world.
The really unique aspect of this book is how Bryson presents this history of living. He goes room by room in his own home, selecting a theme tied to each room (even the hallway) of his house. (Did you know that the stairs are the most common location in the home for fatal accidents? Yes this is an important, historically proven fact.) In the nursery he talks about the life of a child how child labor and controlling, unemotional parents made things especially rough. In the bathroom, we learn about sewage and the history of waste disposal. The attic serves as the location for Bryson to discuss the trend toward preserving historical objects - did you know Stonehenge was almost demolished to make way for more housing?
You'd think a history lesson like this, focusing on something as simple as life and the home, would be boring but the complete opposite is true. The way Bryson writes, the way he speaks to the reader is so engaging that you become interested in what he's interested in. His passion for the subject leads you to want to learn more. And his passion for this book is so obvious. You can see how deep he went in to gather material for the book from the obscure sources he quotes. For example, when in the garden Bryson talks about the rise of outdoor aesthetics, quoting from this source, "On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries; and on the Improvement of Churchyards," by Claudius Loudon, 1843. I can't imagine this is a readily available bit of source material - some digging must have had to been done.
Also unique to Bryson's way to telling history is his attachment to language. The most surprising vein of information throughout the book are facts of an etymological nature. Bryson never misses an opportunity throughout the book to tell use where a common household word was first used and where it was derived from and when it first appeared in the modern lexicon. This is a surprising addition to the narrative that I find myself more curious about than some of the history being shared. I love learning about where words come from though and why we use them. It was a welcomed surprise to be treated to these facts in this book.
I liked everything about this book from the way it was organized to the facts Bryson shared to the narrative voice. Maybe Bryson should write all our history textbooks - I bet more students would actually read them.