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When taking a literary journey with Bill Bryson, this much should be made clear from the outset: You'll be taking the meandering back roads, not the freeway. Yes, the sterile interstate is much speedier, but buckling up with Bryson, in the end, is far more lively and enriching. He is good company.
In "Down Under," he took us to the outback of Australia, a land that invites travelogues, but none with Bryson's platypus-like uniqueness. In "A Short History of Nearly Everything," he made the epic of the Earth's formation and the rise of civilization approachable with witty clarity and offhanded insight (including, finally, an explanation of wind that comes in handy on brisk autumn days). "The Lost Continent" deftly laced side-splitting anecdotes and a touch of pathos in a memorable sojourn across the United States.
This time, he doesn't wander so far.
In his newest book, "At Home: A Short History of Private Life," the Des Moines native takes us on a room-by-room tour of the big, drafty Victorian-era rectory that has been his home in a small village in Norfolk, England, for the past several years. And in true Bryson style, this is no ordinary tour.
Bryson makes the case -- convincingly, compellingly and with his trademark blithe humor -- that history ultimately lands at our doorstep.
Why, he wonders, out of all the spices in the world, do salt and pepper happen to be the only two that land on our tables? Why do most forks have four tines, not three or five? And what does George Washington have to do with the fact that we spend some of the best hours of summer toiling away on our lawns?
Our houses, you learn, hold the collective history of ancient Rome, the Black Death, the explorations of Magellan and Columbus and the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, whose skill as an architect rivaled that of his gifted pen and political acumen.
Bryson's gift lies in provoking thoughts on subjects that might be ignored but, in his unique worldview, take on new significance. The shortest chapter, on the stairs, marking the transition from the downstairs rooms to the ones upstairs (terms which, by the way, weren't recorded in the English language until the mid-19th century), is a case in point.
In terms of the history of stairs, he admits, not a great deal can be said. Yet he proceeds with an intriguing study of the anatomy of staircases, the physics of their design and the physiology of ascent and descent of stairs -- pointing out that going down a set of stairs is in essence a controlled fall (in a perfect world, stairs going up would be designed differently than for those coming down). In fact, he points out, different people fall down stairs differently in different countries and with different frequency, for some complicated and intriguing sociological reasons.
"At Home" is both insightful and entertaining, leaving a deeper appreciation of the stuff of home life that will never again be viewed as mundane. It's striking that many home improvements -- refrigeration, indoor plumbing, the dining room -- are recent developments. And it makes you wonder what it will be like in another hundred years.
Be it ever so jumbled, there's no place like home.
Jim Anderson is a Star Tribune staff writer and copy editor.