March 28, 2012

March 28, 2012

Things I've Read: At Home

Every so often, I read a book that is so chock-full of astonishing facts that I hardly know where to begin. One would think that my Kindle’s ability to highlight, mark, and otherwise take notes would have inspired me to track these things from page one to share with you all. But I was so sucked into the vortex of awesome that is Bill Bryson’s At Home that something had to give. You’re just going to have to deal.

I’ve read Bryson’s work before. The gist: he grew up in Iowa, moved to the UK, and now bemusedly observes things. He’s smart, he’s funny, and he gets to live in England. If he weren’t a middle-aged man, I’d try to do a Freaky Friday-esque body swap. In this book, Bryson walks around his house, from the entryway to the attic, and examines the history of each one. I don’t mean his particular entryway and attic, though. I mean the entire concept of entryways and attics.

Did you ever wonder why we have grass in our yards? When people started building second stories in their houses? Where the phrase “barking mad” came from? All of those things are answered in this book! As in life, this book is a great combination of history, humor, and poop.*

Bryson has the advantage of living in a country and a house that has been around for a while. I love that. I love the idea that you can walk a street that has been in existence for hundreds of years. Part of the reason I moved from Wisconsin (settled in the early 1800s) to Virginia (early 1600s). Things are just older here. In a good way. When my tour group stood at the London spot where Thomas a Becket was born, I FREAKED OUT. Thomas effing a Becket, you guys. Ridic.

Normally, I would here regale you with the choicest things I noted whilst reading. Since I didn’t in fact note anything (a disgrace to the title of this very blog, I know), here are a few items I remember:

1851 was a big year. The Crystal Palace was built as part of the Great Exhibition and all sorts of other stuff went down. When I build the time machine, I’m heading there first. (Then to 1893, then to 1912.)

Eiffel was pretty soundly thrashed for his crazy tower idea. BUT WHO HAD THE LAST LAUGH?

The word “toilet” has evolved. It comes from “toile,” which originally meant any cloth. Turn that into “washcloth,” then “the act of washing,” then “the table at which one washes,” then “the items on that table” (“toiletries”), then “the room in which one washes,” and finally the commode definition of today. Whew.

“Barking mad” comes from the symptoms of syphilis. Advanced stages of the disease induced a cough that sounded like the bark of a dog.

That Crapper was involved with toilets has nothing to do with that four-letter term for excrement. In fact, the word “crap” was in use by the French long before Crapper came around.

Of all the rooms in the house, the hall has fallen furthest. In Viking times, the hall WAS the house. Now, it’s just a passage between rooms.

Corn was somehow genetically engineered from a rye-like grain. It does not occur in nature. The most convincing argument I’ve read so far in favor of alien intervention in agricultural history. How else were the Mayans or whoever splicing plant genes, I ask you?

We all know that I’m weird about history and the origins of things**, so obviously this is right up my alley. But since we’re friends and all, I think you could find something to like, too.

* The bathroom chapter, obviously.
** Words and phrases, not species. Science, meh.

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