Using his own home—an 18th-century English parsonage—as a guide, Bill Bryson brought us a room-by-room examination of the most quotidian of objects in his 2010 At Home, transforming them into an astonishingly illuminating history of domesticity, a modern spin on Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Now that runaway bestseller is back with a strong visual component. At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Illustrated Edition (Doubleday, $40) presents some 200 lovingly chosen full-color images that will make a first (or even a second or third) reading of Bryson’s classic a deeply engaging experience.
The product of James W.P. Campbell’s savvy scholarship and the elegant photography of Will Pryce, the sumptuous The Library: A World History (Univ. of Chicago, $75) chronicles the evolution of this icon of civilization from its ancient Mesopotamian roots through myriad classical iterations, from sleek temples to learning and unusual boondoggles to our century’s efficient and highly functional structures. What they all have in common is their reflection of the culture, needs, and often hubris of their creators as well as highlighting the ongoing tussle between the priorities of the librarian and the whims and fanciful notions of library architects and patrons. With the number of physical books printed rising each year, these are likely to be issues we’ll be (gratefully) wrestling with for some time to come.
A New Literary History Of America (Harvard Univ., $49.95) is an immense critical achievement. The more than 200 essays commissioned by the editors, Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, capture the plurality of American historical and cultural experience in all its complexity, fluidity, and contradiction. The editors broadly and flexibly interpret “literary,” applying the term not only to texts and authors, but to cultural moments and ideas. A stadium-sized roster of essayists, including Jonathan Lethem, Arnold Rampersad, Kara Walker, and Camille Paglia, explore such disparate topics as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the origins of the European concept of a “New World,” and an exploration of “hardboiled” as a state of mind. The book’s amazing diversity is unified by a single thread, which is simply, as Marcus and Sollors state, “speech, in many forms.” Thus, this anthology represents America as an intersection of voices and experiences speaking to each other, calling out, protesting, creating, and recreating anew. This is a vital book for any student (or product) of American culture.