Bill Bryson · 497 pages
Rating: (65.3K votes)
“I refer of course to the soaring wonder of the age known as the Eiffel Tower. Never in history has a structure been more technologically advanced, materially obsolescent, and gloriously pointless all at the same time.”
“For anyone of a rational disposition, fashion is often nearly impossible to fathom. Throughout many periods of history – perhaps most – it can seem as if the whole impulse of fashion has been to look maximally ridiculous. If one could be maximally uncomfortable as well, the triumph was all the greater.”
“So, if people didn’t settle down to take up farming, why then did they embark on this entirely new way of living? We have no idea – or actually, we have lots of ideas, but we don’t know if any of them are right. According to Felipe Fernández-Armesto, at least thirty-eight theories have been put forward to explain why people took to living in communities: that they were driven to it by climatic change, or by a wish to stay near their dead, or by a powerful desire to brew and drink beer, which could only be indulged by staying in one place.”
“Even though sugar was very expensive, people consumed it till their teeth turned black, and if their teeth didn't turn black naturally, they blackened them artificially to show how wealthy and marvelously self-indulgent they were.”
“It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.”
“Out of the thirty thousand types of edible plants thought to exist on Earth, just eleven—corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, rye, and oats—account for 93 percent of all that humans eat, and every one of them was first cultivated by our Neolithic ancestors.”
“It was an odd situation. For a century and a half, men got rid of their own hair, which was perfectly comfortable, and instead covered their heads with something foreign and uncomfortable. Very often it was actually their own hair made into a wig. People who couldn't afford wigs tried to make their hair look like a wig.”
“...and it occurred to me, with the forcefulness of a thought experienced in 360 degrees, that that's really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things.”
“Pantaloons were often worn tight as paint and were not a great deal less revealing, particularly as they were worn without underwear. . . . Jackets were tailored with tails in the back, but were cut away in front so that they perfectly framed the groin. It was the first time in history that men's apparel was consciously designed to be more sexy than women's.”
“Columbus's real achievement was managing to cross the ocean successfully in both directions. Though an accomplished enough mariner, he was not terribly good at a great deal else, especially geography, the skill that would seem most vital in an explorer. It would be hard to name any figure in history who has achieved more lasting fame with less competence. He spent large parts of eight years bouncing around Caribbean islands and coastal South America convinced that he was in the heart of the Orient and that Japan and China were at the edge of every sunset. He never worked out that Cuba is an island and never once set foot on, or even suspected the existence of, the landmass to the north that everyone thinks he discovered: the United States.”
“It is not as if farming brought a great improvement in living standards either. A typical hunter-gatherer enjoyed a more varied diet and consumed more protein and calories than settled people, and took in five times as much viatmin C as the average person today.”
“If a potato can produce vitamin C, why can't we? Within the animal kingdom only humans and guinea pigs are unable to synthesize vitamin C in their own bodies. Why us and guinea pigs? No point asking. Nobody knows.”
“Nothing - really, absolutely nothing - says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century's most daring and iconic building was entrusted to a gardener.”
“[Americans] were, for one thing, so smitten with the idea of progress that they invented things without having any idea whether those things would be of any use.”
“Marrying cousins was astoundingly common into the nineteenth century, and nowhere is this better illustrated than with the Darwins and their cousins the Wedgwoods (of pottery fame). Charles married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, daughter of his beloved Uncle Josiah. Darwin's sister Caroline, meanwhile, married Josiah Wedgwood III, Emma's brother and the Darwin siblings' joint first cousin. Another of Emma's brothers, Henry, married not a Darwin but a first cousin from another branch of his own Wedgwood family, adding another strand to the family's wondrously convoluted genetics. Finally, Charles Langton, who was not related to either family, first married Charlotte Wedgwood, another daughter of Josiah and cousin of Charles, and then upon Charlotte's death married Darwin's sister Emily, thus becoming, it seems, his sister-in-law's sister-in-law's husband and raising the possibility that any children of the union would be their own first cousins.”
“The real significance of Magellan's voyage was not that it was the first to circumnavigate the planet, but that it was the first to realize just how big that planet was.”
“Widespread commercial distribution of ice was so new that 300 tons of the precious commodity melted at one port while customs officials tried to figure out how to classify it.”
“One consequential change is that people used to get most of their calories at breakfast and midday, with only the evening top-up at suppertime. Now those intakes are almost exactly reversed. Most of us consume the bulk--a sadly appropriate word here--of our calories in the evening and take them to bed with us, a practice that doesn't do any good at all.”
“Victorian rigidities were such that ladies were not even allowed to blow out candles in mixed company, as that required them to pucker their lips suggestively. They could not say that they were going "to bed"--that planted too stimulating an image--but merely that they were "retiring." It became effectively impossible to discuss clothing in even a clinical sense without resort to euphemisms. Trousers became "nether integuments" or simply "inexpressibles" and underwear was "linen." Women could refer among themselves to petticoats or, in hushed tones, stockings, but could mention almost nothing else that brushed bare flesh.”
“Out of the thirty thousand types of edible plants thought to exist on Earth, just eleven—corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, rye, and oats—account for 93 percent of all that humans eat,”
“The Reverend Sydney Smith, though a man of the cloth, caught the spirit of the age by declining to say grace. 'With the ravenous orgasm upon you, it seems impertinent to interpose a religious sentiment,' he explained. 'It is a confusion of purpose to mutter out praises from a mouth that waters.”
“Mrs Loudon was even more successful than her husband thanks to a single work, Practical Instructions in Gardening for Ladies, published in 1841, which proved to be magnificently timely. It was the first book of any type ever to encourage women of elevated classes to get their hands dirty and even to take on a faint glow of perspiration. This was novel almost to the point of eroticism. Gardening for Ladies bravely insisted that women could manage gardening independent of male supervision if they simply observed a few sensible precautions – working steadily but not too vigorously, using only light tools, never standing on damp ground because of the unhealthful emanations that would rise up through their skirts.”
“America's industrial success produced a roll call of financial magnificence: Rockefellers, Morgans, Astors, Mellons, Fricks, Carnegies, Goulds, du Ponts, Belmonts, Harrimans, Huntingtons, Vanderbilts, and many more based in dynastic wealth of essentially inexhaustible proportions. John D. Rockefeller made $1 billion a year, measured in today's money, and paid no income tax. No one did, for income tax did not yet exist in America. Congress tried to introduce an income tax of 2 percent on earnings of $4,000 in 1894, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Income tax wouldn't become a regular part of American Life until 1914. People would never be this rich again.
Spending all this wealth became for many a more or less full-time occupation. A kind of desperate, vulgar edge became attached to almost everything they did. At one New York dinner party, guests found the table heaped with sand and at each place a little gold spade; upon a signal, they were invited to dig in and search for diamonds and other costly glitter buried within. At another party - possibly the most preposterous ever staged - several dozen horses with padded hooves were led into the ballroom of Sherry's, a vast and esteemed eating establishment, and tethered around the tables so that the guests, dressed as cowboys and cowgirls, could enjoy the novel and sublimely pointless pleasure of dining in a New York ballroom on horseback.”
“The dining table was a plain board called by that name. It was hung on the wall when not in use, and was perched on the diners' knees when food was served. Over time, the word board came to signify not just the dining surface but the meal itself, which is where the board comes from in room and board. It also explains why lodgers are called boarders.”
“Because bread was so important, the laws governing its purity were strict and the punishment severe. A baker who cheated his customers could be fined £10 per loaf sold, or made to do a month's hard labor in prison. For a time, transportation to Australia was seriously considered for malfeasant bakers. This was a matter of real concern for bakers because every loaf of bread loses weight in baking through evaporation, so it is easy to blunder accidentally. For that reason, bakers sometimes provided a little extra- the famous baker's dozen.”
“Part of the reason people could eat so well was that many foods that we now think of as delicacies were plenteous then. Lobsters bred in such abundance around Britain's coastline that they were fed to prisoners and orphans or ground up for fertilizer.”
“Originally, the cellar served primarily as a coal store. Today it holds the boiler, idle suitcases, out-of-season sporting equipment, and many sealed cardboard boxes that are almost never opened but are always carefully transferred from house to house with every move in the belief that one day someone might want some baby clothes that have been kept in a box for twenty-five years.”
“Now as I stood on the roof of my house, taking in this unexpected view, it struck me how rather glorious it was that in two thousand years of human activity the only thing that had stirred the notice of the outside world even briefly was the finding of a Roman phallic pendant. The rest was just centuries of people quietly going about their daily business - eating, sleeping, having sex, endeavoring to be amused- and it occurred to me, with the forcefulness of a thought experienced in 360 degrees, that that's really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things. Even Einstein will have spent large parts of his life thinking about his holidays o new hammock or how dainty was the ankle on the young lady alighting from the tram across the street. These are the sort of things that fill our life and thoughts, and yet we treat them as incidental and hardly worthy of serious consideration. I don't know how many hours of my school years were spent considering the Missouri Compromise or the War of the Roses, but it was vastly more than I was ever encouraged or allowed to give to the history of eating. sleeping, having sex and endeavoring to be amused.”
“At one time he [Cornelius Vanderbilt] personally controlled some 10 percent of all the money in circulation in the United States.”
“A plumped feather bed may have looked divine, but occupants quickly found themselves sinking into a hard, airless fissure between billowy hills. Support was on a lattice of ropes, which could be tightened with a key when they began to sag (hence the expression "sleep tight").”
“It was possible, as far as they knew, that the western shore, which in fifty years’ time would be christened New Jersey, was in fact the backdoor of China, that India, with its steamy profusion of gods and curries, lay just beyond those bluffs.”
“Creatures with no dreams of their own can do naught but destroy the dreams of others.”
“You and I move through time like a flame on a string. The ashes behind are the past, consumed, unreachable. The string ahead is the future. But the only moment we inhabit, the only moment where we can act, is the present, the point where the flame burns, the point where time touches eternity.”
“Come over here so I can wipe my hands on your shirt," she said, holding up her beer-sticky hands. Eyebrows raised in amusement, Blue did as she asked. He stood between her legs at the front of the car, his knees against the bumper.
"Go for it," he said.
Her wet fingers grazed the muscle of his abdomen as she fumbled to dry her hands on his T-shirt. Blue sucked in a breath when her hands brushed his skin, and something electric ran through her. A flush burned her cheeks. She made herself focus on the artwork on his T-shirt.
"Now the ick is on you, where it belongs," she said.
"You are a very nasty princess," Blue said.”
“I am too perfect for Evening," Adam volunteers. "But that's all right." He smiles shyly at Aislin. "I am not too perfect for Aislin.”
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