Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888

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?”

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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 ken of the human imagination. The same is true for all the chapters of the book.

The second chapter, “Midday,” shows the empty house after its occupants have left for their workday. While one might think that the absence of human activity and the placidity of emptiness would indicate a house in which nothing is happening, the contrary is actually the case. Bodanis talks about everything from carpeted floors to walls to windows, and the house shakes, breathes, slithers, and writhes. When the woman of the house comes home early, the scene shifts to the back garden, where she sits contentedly sipping a Coke. Here Bodanis presents a scientific treatise of what is occurring several feet under the lawn as various kinds of soil creatures carry on their own daily existence.

“Late Afternoon” brings the house’s other occupant home, and the activity in the house becomes frenetic indeed, as voices reverberate and preparations for the evening meal get under way. In the process Bodanis gives the reader dissertations on such things as microwave ovens, the slaughtering of beef, salmonella, human hair, and clothes, as the house’s occupants prepare to entertain dinner guests.

The preparations continue in the next chapter, “Early Evening,” as dressing continues and the vacuum cleaner is run. Bodanis moves from an analysis of these activities to the arrival of the carpet destroyers—the guests who carry millions of particles of sand on their shoes. Handshaking, sneezing, talking, eating, breathing, and toilet flushing are all examined by the author with the minuteness of detail that marks the whole book.

“Dinner Continues” presents the activities of the dinner party and all the drama that goes on unseen by the human beings going through their social rituals. Beginning with a discussion of air in the dining room, Bodanis moves next to the storm that has been brewing all day, which arrives with a clap of thunder. Wind, rain, and lightning are all subjected to his microscopic treatment. The storm, however, does not stop the serving of dessert, a cake. While the guests eat the cake, the reader is taken through a process that runs from the formulating and packaging of cake mix to the baking of it and, finally, to the piling of ice cream upon the finished product.

Following dessert, some guests light cigarettes and deluge themselves and their companions with poison chemicals. The evening, however, is almost over, and the guests, like all good guests, leave.

“Bath and Bed” brings the time of purging all the effects of the day’s activities. A bath is high on the relaxation list, and the bath is what Bodanis focuses on next. Starting with the history of the modern bathtub, he takes the reader through the bathing ritual and on to the female’s efforts to maintain attractive facial skin. The house’s occupants now retire to bed—but a faucet is dripping, and, true to form. Bodanis does not leave this phenomenon untreated. On that note that book ends.

Accompanying the lively prose of The Secret House are numerous photographs of superb quality. From fibers in a synthetic shirt to dust fragments to the cranking hands of a wrist watch, these photographs add a graphic dimension to the text that contributes significantly to the overall success of Bodanis’ efforts.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 67

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

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

Best Sellers. Review. XLVI (December, 1986), p. 356.

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.

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