Thursday, August 6, 2020

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson
Read by Bill Bryson
Published October 2011 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
In these pages, the beloved Bill Bryson gives us a fascinating history of the modern home, taking us on a room-by-room tour through his own house and using each room to explore the vast history of the domestic artifacts we take for granted. As he takes us through the history of our modern comforts, Bryson demonstrates that whatever happens in the world eventually ends up in our home, in the paint, the pipes, the pillows, and every item of furniture. Bryson has one of the liveliest, most inquisitive minds on the planet, and his sheer prose fluency makes At Home one of the most entertaining books ever written about private life.

My Thoughts:
Publisher's Weekly calls Bill Bryson's exploration of the history of our homes and lives "free-ranging" and I think that is the perfect description. He opens the book writing about the building of the Crystal Palace, home to the 1851 Great Exhibition in England which takes us off into the history of glass making and construction. 

By coincidence, little more than 100 miles away, in the same year a rectory was being built which Bryson would one day be living in and which he would use as a map for this book. In discussing his home, Bryson writes about the history of how homes as we know them developed. We learn about the rectors who occupied homes like the one he lives in, and what they did, which very rarely involved tending to a flock. Once inside we learn about rats and all manner of creepy creatures, the history of the use of and search for spices, furniture through the years, disease and death, childbirth and the raising of children, the industrial revolution and child labor, the way certain words (such as toilet) have changed through the years, and the history of the telephone. 

The book is chock full of information which I found, for the most part, very interesting and wished that I had bought the book so I could refer back to it in the future. But...I often forgot what room we'd started in since Bryson so often went off in a direction that had little to do with the room. Because Bryson's home tended to have rats in the study, that's what Bryson talked about in that chapter but he included nothing about why a room called a "study" ever came into being (although, to be fair, he did touch on, when talking about the change from living in one great hall to having many rooms in a home, that often rooms began being used for a purpose just because there were so many rooms). In some ways, it felt like Bryson had found a lot of interesting information about a lot of things that he wanted to find a way to weave into one book. Bryson certainly does know a lot about the subjects that he's included and stuffed the book full of interesting tidbits; for example, Queen Elizabeth I used to take the silverware home when she visited people's homes. 

Bryson does a marvelous job reading his book but I must say I was surprised to find that he was born in the U.S. and lives here now, given that he speaks with a British accent. 


  1. I used to love Bryson. His book A Walk in the Woods is a fave of mine and I've read so many of his books but there was a book a few years back where he just came off at bitter and grumpy. It was the one when he revisited the UK where he lived for quite awhile. Hence, the accent. He was so unpleasant in that one that I gave up on him but then still got all of the books that came after that one. How was his tone in this one? Pleasantly curious or kind of negative and crabby?

  2. I’ve enjoyed several of Bryson’s previous books, I should add this to my TBR. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  3. This one has been on my list forever! I need to finally read it.

  4. Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods entertained me at the right time when I was waiting in hospital for surgery. I like info books so when I saw A Short History of Nearly Everything in a thrift shop I bought it, but have only dipped into it. Thanks for the review.