Compare and Contrast : “At Home”by Bill Bryson and “Nation” by Terry Pratchett

Contingency. I have always been awed when I think of how improbable is any particular fact of history, any specific species or human individual’s existence, the range of physical laws’ tolerance that enable a planet to have life like ours, and the universe we live in neither to have dispersed or clumped in ways that would never make stars and planets….Whatever the scale, everything seems so accidental- or purposeful. Which? Everything is connected to everything else in the universe.

Bill Bryson takes as a theme and centre, the house he lives in, an old (1851) parsonage in Norfolk. Each Room leads him through an examination of the history of the sort of life people lived there. Enormous, gluttonous meals in one period are compared with the diets of the poor and mill workers for example, so he ranges widely from the Room. He also loves the way things that were not foreseen as related come together: the dressing room, with information about clothing, includes the invention of power looms etc and the factoid/ coincidence/historical link that the invention of the cotton gin by Whitney expanded slavery because of the need for pickers to keep up with newly mechanised industry… which led to …and so on.

However, as Bud and I both read this book, we noticed that we were saying to each other”Hey, listen to this!” and reading some bit. We do that a lot. But here we were picking out interesting facts; not so much the links between them, let alone any meaning, or ethical or political repercussions. Just the facts, ma’am. And I had a problem looking up the Notes on Sources which are online- But I could not open that, though I could open the booksattransworld and find his books for sale. I had wanted to look up the dates of his report that a doctor who allowed his students to watch a woman giving birth (with her permission) was expelled from the AMA, and another who noted a change in the coloration around the vagina after conception was barred from practice because he should not have been seeing that! These are linked in the paragraph to another incident in 1878, but I wanted to know when each happened. This is frustrating to me because I am concurrently reading a volume of women’s letters which includes one by a wife – Emma Spaulding Bryant, who, in 1873, argues with her husband about treatment she has received that clearly included vaginal suppositories – and she used the V word. So. At Home is a frustrating book which seemed more important than I think it is.

Then I picked up a Young Adult book to re-read- Terry Pratchett’s “Nation” and it is full, full, of ideas to think about: theodicy, cultural pressure (the voices of the Grandfathers” or “grandmother” in the heroes’ heads,) the coming of age and rites of passage of a boy and a girl, ethics,cosmology. Mau’s Nation is destroyed by a tsunami while he is on the boys’ island, alone, preparing to become a man, and Ermintrude/Daphne is the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Mau  argues against the gods who could do this, fights the voices in his head, becomes the leader of the ragtag survivors, while Daphne both becomes a woman and leader, and resists the cultural pressures of the sort-of-victorian world she comes from. Thrown in are ideas about parallel universes, cultural jingoism and so on. This is a different way of thinking about the links between events and the reasons why things are as they are. He also, of course, refuses easy answers. All this together with Pratchett’s joyful manipulation of language. What a great read.

Some  of the best books are published for children or young adults. Maurice Sendak was interviewed by Stephen Colbert yesterday (watch this!) and denies writing for children- that’s the publishers’ decision. He claims not to like children- but then he claims not to like many humans at all!

So many books! Especially enjoyable during a stormy week in the mountains with poor internet access. Off to the library again tomorrow.

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2 Responses to Compare and Contrast : “At Home”by Bill Bryson and “Nation” by Terry Pratchett

  1. Mary says:

    Interesting to see what you got out of Nation. Pratchett wrote it shortly after his diagnosis with early Alzheimer’s, and whenever I read it, I see it as a questioning of what defines a person, when the history and commonality and culture are removed.

    For the notes and sources, try this:


  2. readingmater says:

    I think the theodicy picks up on his diagnosis- if there is a God, why do awful things happen to people who don’t deserve them. Pratchett is like Job.
    I like the question you see there of what defines a person. I’m reading a book by Oliver Sachs that talks about what it did to him to be a patient, and to lose the awareness of his injured leg, specifically his concept of himself as strong and capable and in-charge.
    And thanks for the link, my personal techie.


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