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Why Sofas? These Books Explain the Joys and Mysteries of the Home

Cheryl Mendelson writes, “Home is the one place in the world where you are safe from feeling put down or out, unentitled or unwanted.” Quarantine is putting her theory to the test.

François Ollivier for The New York Times
By Elisabeth Egan and 

Have you ever wondered how forks ended up with four tines, where to store off-season clothes when you live in a small space, or why there’s green felt on pool tables? These books have answers.

Walk into any flea market and you’ll find crafts stitched with aphorisms like “Home sweet home” and “Home is where the heart is.” But what do we really mean when we talk about the place where we eat and sleep? What elevates a shelter to a refuge? In this extended essay, an architect reflects on such questions, considering not just a building’s structure but what we ask it to hold: light, air, comfort, privacy and intimacy. From the manor halls of the Middle Ages to contemporary dwellings crammed with stuff, Rybczynski examines five centuries of homes, pausing at the intersection of form and function to pose yet another question: How do we want to live now?

Flanders’s book “isn’t just smart and diverting but also brave,” our reviewer wrote. “It’s good to be reminded that in the 1650s the grandest drawing rooms of London held very large beds, with no hint of impropriety; this was public furniture. … Good, too, to remember the deep meaning of curtains and how a few hundred miles could change it entirely. In Germany, they were the mark of an orderly household with not too much light, but in the Netherlands, Calvinists were apt to let their goods, the signs of God’s favor, be seen from the street.” Flanders leads a house tour that traverses continents, centuries, and social classes. No detail is too small, no ceiling too high to escape her scrutiny.

Mendelson’s 72-chapter, information-crammed, the yellow-spined bible of domestic life has been a presence on bookshelves since 1999. For years, it was a staple at bridal showers and the perfect gift for a niece who just signed a lease on her first apartment. The recipient would skim the table of contents, exclaiming over the chapters he or she (but, let’s face it, usually she) couldn’t wait to read — “Stimulating Beverages,” “Electrical Safety,” “Beds and Bedding” — and then onto the shelf the book would go. Now is the time to pull it down. Mendelson not only teaches you how to clean your refrigerator, launder your clothes and make sense of your vacuum cleaner attachments, she does so with a sense of humor and a “we’re all in this together” vibe. Which is exactly what we need right now.

Bill Bryson is best known his jaunt on the Appalachian Trail (chronicled in “A Walk in the Woods”) and road trips (“The Lost Continent,” “In a Sunburned Country”). In “At Home,” he takes a spin through history without leaving his own property — a former rectory built in 1851, nestled in an English village. Room by room, from the larder to the dining area all the way down to the cellar, he pauses to put everything from buttons to building materials into context. Our reviewer wrote, “If you have any interest in furniture, food, fashion, architecture, energy or world history, chances are you’ve stumbled across some (or all) of the information Bryson has on offer. … But while Bryson may not have done much original research, it takes a very particular kind of thoughtfulness, as well as a bold temperament, to stuff all this research into a mattress that’s supportive enough to loll about on while pondering the real subject of this book — the development of the modern world.”

If you haven’t heard of Marie Kondo, you must be trapped under a pile of household cultch that doesn’t, as she would say, spark joy. But before she had her own Netflix show and launched an online store selling handmade matcha bowls ($45) and weighted meditation support cushions ($149), Kondo published this wildly successful and incredibly practical guide to getting your house in order. She begins with simple advice: “Start by discarding. Then organize your place, thoroughly and completely, in one go.” You might be skeptical of the promise of a changed life, but who can argue with the peace of mind resulting from a well-organized environment? With this book, getting there is easier than you might expect.

One night, unloading the dishwasher while her husband and two daughters played in the next room, Rubin, the author of “The Happiness Project,” realized that her ongoing quest for happiness was tied to the place where she lived. “I decided to start my happiness project with the theme of ‘Possessions,’ not because I thought possessions were the most important aspect of my home — they weren’t — but because I knew that in many cases, my possessions blocked my view and weighed me down,” she writes. “Before I wrestled with deeper challenges that struck closer to my heart — in the months devoted to ‘Marriage,’ ‘Parenthood’ and ‘Family’ — I wanted to feel more in control of stuff.” Ah, don’t we all.

This alphabetical compendium is packed with charmingly illustrated histories of the everyday objects that fill our homes — wine goblets, rocking chairs, bookshelves, picnic baskets. “Take chopsticks,” Florence Fabricant wrote in The Times. “While most people know they came about because of Chinese dining, some will be surprised to learn that disposable pairs date back to 18th-century Japan, where they were named waribashi. Moreover, strict Japanese chopstick etiquette notes that sauce dripping from the ends, called ‘crying chopsticks,’ is unacceptable.”

Mendelson’s 72-chapter, information-crammed, the

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