Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reading Bill Bryson’s At Home: Chapters 12 and 13: The Garden and The Plum Room


In these two chapters, Bryson takes us on a tour of the grounds and exteriors of our Western homes. We tramp around cemeteries and topiary gardens. Bryson’s own “Plum Room,” so named for its wall color, serves to introduce us to famous architects and bibliophiles. Bryson’s notes on Thomas Jefferson, perhaps America’s most notable sometime architect and lifetime book hound, got me thinking about my own fascination with books. Despite numerous moves across several states, I have still held onto a staggering amount of books (although luckily for now fewer than Jefferson’s own 10,000+). My own interests are not quite as eclectic as Jefferson’s, but I do find reasons to keep volumes on subjects as diverse as household insects, polar exploration, and early American furniture. Many of these sub-collections are products of my various jobs and degrees, like the several dozen archaeology books I usually sequester on some lone shelf. And against my better judgment, I still find books almost everywhere I go. I religiously stop at used bookstores and rarely leave empty-handed. For me, these little adventures are where I encounter fascinating treasures I’ve never heard of, even in genres in which I’ve delved for years. I also like to think that in an age of internet bookstores and internet media, I’m helping to support an institution—the brick-and-mortar bookstore—that represents a connection to the first citizens of our nation.

Perhaps in a decade or two there will be no more books rolling off the presses as we move into a world of e-readers. But for me, there is nothing like reaching up to my shelf and finding the reference I’m looking for, nothing like feeling the comfortable weight of a book in my lap, nothing like knowing that in each of these volumes is a wealth of human learning, creation, and art. So that’s why, wherever I end up, I’ll have my own Plum Room, filled with these textual treasures. I like to think that Jefferson would be proud.


In January of 2008, I took a two-week field trip to London and Bath while I was pursuing my M.A. We visited many museums and other sites of cultural significance including Beckford's Tower in Bath (Bryson mentions Beckford and his eccentricities on several occasions throughout the book). According to Bath Preservation Trust, Beckford intended for the tower to serve as a "study retreat" and as a place for Beckford to store and display his "art and rare books" collections (swell idea, Beckford!). The Tower turned out to be fascinating, but upon our arrival, I could barely get past the graveyard situated next to the tower.

Our gracious and informative host had begun her tour at the Tower, but I was mesmerized by the Lansdown Cemetery next door.

As I snapped several photos, one of my professors called me back to the group. The cemetery remains among my favorite sites visited (however fleetingly) during those two weeks. But I never stopped to think about why.

For one, as Bryson suggests, sites for buying the dead--whether they are seventeenth- or eighteenth-century public burying grounds or private church yards or nineteenth-century park-like or landscaped cemeteries---are attractive places. In his chapter on the garden, Bryson links the nineteenth-century garden-type cemetery movement to domestic gardening and a growing interest in designing healthy outdoor recreational spaces (270-272). These ruminations brought to mind my current research on a gravestone in one of Newport, Rhode Island’s, cemeteries.

A gravestone?

Until this summer, I admit that I never thought that I would study cemeteries or grave markers. I live across from a cemetery in a sleepy town in Delaware, but until now, it was just atmosphere. I had unfairly associated others’ grave marker enthusiasm with antiquarian interests gone awry. A cemetery is a cemetery is a cemetery, I thought...until you start to look more closely at the grave marker materials, shapes, designs, and the cemetery configurations.

And the people.

In many cases, learning about the people underneath the stones would be nearly impossible if the stones did not survive. In some cases, cemeteries make private life painfully public.

The most striking aspect of cemeteries is that, since many are open to the public, they serve as unique opportunities for anyone to study material culture up close and personal. No white gloves or stanchions here. Cemeteries allow interpreters of material culture to bring the public into the field (literally) to think about a range of historical themes such as everyday life and family relations, race, social status, the craft of stone-cutting and carving, commemoration practices, and how all these things change over time and are different across a single town or between two countries. Cemeteries long abandoned or minimally cared-for also present individuals and groups with opportunities to engage in preventative conservation. In short, cemeteries are ideal object study laboratories, and they can be found just about everywhere.

I did not have a chance to walk around Lansdown Cemetery that day in January. But when I return, I will do more than gape at its eerie beauty. Instead, I will think more critically about what I can learn about the past from being up close and personal among the grave markers and the people for whom they were erected.

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