Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

David Bodanis’ The Secret House (1986) is, as its subtitle indicates, the story of twenty-four hours in the strange and unexpected world in which we spend our nights and days. With a degree in pure mathematics from the University of Chicago, Bodanis has published widely in such newspapers as The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, and The International Herald Tribune, as well as in Reader’s Digest. He also authored The Body Book (1984). The idea for The Secret House came to him while he was living in a small French village in a four-level house dating back to the twelfth century. Each level had its own particular atmosphere, its own psychology. “What would it be like,” Bodanis wondered, “to work out this psychology for the contemporary home?”

The plan he finally hit upon for his study of the contemporary home was to describe the immediate environment of such a home as its occupants go through a typical day from morning to night. After a few months of false starts in the drafting of chapters, he finally found the approach that seemed right. “It turned out to be a sort of benevolent personality,” he says. “I am benevolent, though the facts stay impersonal.” The approach he uses, moreover, is a scientific one, relying heavily on scientific terms appropriate to the modern world.

The book is divided into two parts, “Daytime” and “Night Time.” These parts are in turn divided into three chapters each. “Daytime” includes those chapters titled “Morning,” “Midday,” and “Late Afternoon,” while “Night Time” includes those titled “Early Evening,” “Dinner Continues,” and “Bath and Bed.”

“Morning” begins with the ringing of an alarm clock and the onslaught of shock waves that flow throughout the bedroom as the occupants are aroused from their slumbers. A radio is turned on, a window is opened, feet patter to the bathroom, and teeth are brushed. Following these ablutions comes the preparation of breakfast. All these activities are embellished with detailed scientific facts that give them a complexity almost beyond...

(The entire section is 888 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Appraisal: Science Books for Young People. Review. XX (Summer, 1987), p. 21.

Baldwin, J. Review in Whole Earth Review. LV (Summer, 1987), p. 110.

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Hoelterhoff, Manuela. “Bookshelf: Of Mites and Men,” in The Wall Street Journal. March 11, 1987, p. 34.

Science Books and Films. Review. XXII (May, 1987), p. 302.

Stepp, Carl Sessions. “Close Up on the World Around Us,” in The Washington Post Book World. XVI (October 12, 1986), p. 8.