Tucker's Reviews > Home: A Short History of an Idea

Home by Witold Rybczynski
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Dec 16, 11

bookshelves: finished
Read in December, 2011, read count: 1

Examines the European-American evolution of the cultural concepts of privacy, comfort, and the intersection of form and function. I'd group this book as informative to ecopsychology, although the author, writing in the mid-1980s, didn't use the term.

The author admits that comfort "is an invention--a cultural artifice. Like all cultural ideas--childhood, family, gender--it has a past, and it cannot be understood without reference to its specific history. One-dimensional, technical definitions of comfort, which ignore history, are bound to be unsatisfactory." (p. 230) Where people struggle for mere survival, comfort is beside the point. Where there is something that might be called a standard of living, people do tend to make themselves what we know as "comfortable," but not everyone has thought about comfort the way we think of it today, informed as we are by advertisements and so forth. "People in the Middle Ages did not altogether lack comfort, as I have tried to show. Their homes were neither rustic nor crude, nor should we imagine that the persons inhabiting them did so without pleasure. But what comfort there was was never explicit. What our medieval ancestors did lack was the awareness of comfort as an objective idea." (pp. 31-32)

He believes that today we have not integrated our domestic technology with our sense of comfort. It is a subtle point: technology is useful, but not necessarily calming and pleasing in a way that appeals artistically or gels with our sense of self. Quote: "With the introduction of devices such as the gasolier and the vent duct a rift appeared between the mainly visual approach of decorators and the primarily mechanical approach of the engineers. As we shall see, with time this rift widened and contributed to a schizophrenic attitude toward domestic comfort that still troubles us." (pp. 147-148) And again: "One might have expected the various inventions that contributed to human comfort at the turn of the century to have had a profound impact on the appearance of the home. Surprisingly, this was not the case." (p. 173)

This is much closer to what I'd hoped Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life would be about. Bryson's book focused more on the architecture and technology of houses, whereas Rybczynski weaves these subjects into his reflections on privacy and comfort that make up the core of the book.
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