Have you ever read something and thought: “I never knew that!” It is great feeling of enlightenment. But then there is the more humbling response of “I never even thought of that.” Recently, that was my reaction as I read Bill Bryson’s At Home and Simon Winchester’s The Atlantic, A Biography.
Bryson talks about the various areas of the house and how and why they developed. He goes room by room through the house discussing many things we take for granted. In the kitchen he explains why we choose salt and pepper over other spices. The invention of the chimney was essential in developing the ‘upstairs’ of the house; private rooms there eliminated the idea of a great hall where people literally ‘made a bed’ each night by piling straw and covering it with a blanket. Perhaps my favorite part of the book is when he explains the use of glass, its development and the cost and the practicality of using it. He details how a young gardener named Joseph Paxton sketched a model for what became known as the Crystal Palace. It was a huge (1831 foot long) structure that used no bricks, mortar or cement. This was an amazing feat! For a people used to close, dark buildings walking through the structure must have been awe-inspiring. And it could only have happened because sheet glass had recently been perfected and the taxes on glass and windows had been abolished. He examines so many aspects of living that we consider normal. It is an informative and witty read.
Simon Winchester’s book is a bit more scholarly. He looks at the Atlantic Ocean as a living thing and considers the perils of its exploration. He delves into the ocean’s beauty and its inspiring role on artists and writers. But he does not ignore its legacy of sadness during the slave trade and various battles. Some parts of the book go into minute detail but Winchester is such a great storyteller that you forgive him for wanting to share every tidbit he has researched.
Other books have amazed me that someone could research, organize and present such detail: Cod and Salt both by Mark Kurlansky, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester and The Little Ice Age by Brian Fagan come to mind. There is so much to learn!
– posted by Brenda, Reference Services