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At Home: A Short History of Private Life

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“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has figured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.


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“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has figured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.

30 review for At Home: A Short History of Private Life

  1. 5 out of 5

    Sonja

    I came across a review that dismissed Bill Bryson's work as being entertaining fact collection that doesn't present anything new. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, if not the implication. There is nothing wrong with entertaining fact collection, and, in my mind, everything right with it. In this age of information overload, the kind of clear-minded research and fact-sorting he performs for his readers is manna sent from communication heaven. The ability (and the willingness) to collect, I came across a review that dismissed Bill Bryson's work as being entertaining fact collection that doesn't present anything new. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, if not the implication. There is nothing wrong with entertaining fact collection, and, in my mind, everything right with it. In this age of information overload, the kind of clear-minded research and fact-sorting he performs for his readers is manna sent from communication heaven. The ability (and the willingness) to collect, order, set out and present information in the most simple and logical way possible is something that I will always treasure in my favourite writers and thinkers. The desire to popularise science and historical research marks an author, for me, as intellectually generous. The fact that the book has such a logical flow is actually a triumph, arising primarily from the the way the facts have been organised. The hallmark of a good idea is the way it seems blindingly obvious in retrospect, and it must be said that it was very astute to choose the home as an organising metaphor, one with which every reader is familiar. A history of domestic life could just as easily been organised chronologically, for example. Or divided into discrete units by subject - 'servants', 'hygiene', 'architecture' - just like the school textbooks that turned us off this stuff in the first place. Using a tangible concept allows Bryson to create easily-visualised conceptual spaces from which to launch his explorations, allowing him ramble freely across history, linguistics and science without losing us. It allows him a safe space to create links between Victorian prudishness, evolution, poor houses and nursery rhymes without leaving us reeling in confusion. The judicious introduction of a smattering of already-familiar historical figures such as Washington, Jefferson, Columbus and Darwin also saves the narrative from spiralling into abstraction. In my view, the real magic in Bryson's brand of popular science is turning everyday items into objects of mystery. Why have pepper and salt become the only two condiments that feature on every western table? Why do forks have four tines and not five? Why do we cultivate lawns? Why do we have buttons on our jacket cuffs? Why are pigs eaten and dogs domesticated and not the other way around? Everything from our windows to our mattresses suddenly holds a story. I have enough of an aversion to the Dan Brown brand for it to have prevented me from reading any of his work, but I have the deepest admiration for the way he, in a similar manner, has been able to suggest that existing, accessible, tangible locations hold clues to a larger conspiracy. Injecting a little bit of play into everyday life is a marvellous thing. And stretching it a little further, it's not so different from Foursquare, which also transforms our everyday places into part of a broader narrative (in the case of Foursquare, a social narrative, in Bryson or Dan Brown's case, an historical narrative). Making us feel like we have a tangible connection to our own history is important for someone like me, and presumably some others of my generation, who don't feel it very often. Suddenly, the USA's AT&T, which I only know from its stranglehold over iPad contracts, is also Alexander Graham Bell's American Telephone & Telegraph company. The tobacco we smoke is the same stuff that the fifteenth-century American Indians were inhaling, and we're still eating stone age crops and using the names of their gods for the days of the week ('Tiw, Woden, Thor... and Woden's wife Frig'). I'm also a sucker for anything that links real life with the abstractions of language, and the book's full of etymological delicacies for language nerds. For example, we find out that the earlier incarnations of our 'toiletries' could be found on the 'toile' cloth on top of a dresser, 'banquet' comes from the french word for the benches people used to sit on, and the pantry or 'bread room' is derived from the latin word 'panna'. And why do we still say 'sleep tight'? Because we used to kip on mattresses supported by ropes that could be tightened by a key. On the other hand, the book also forces us to consider how abruptly different our current period is from most of the rest of human existence.For instance, Bryson tells me that although running water has been around since Caeser was a boy, adequate lighting and heating are luxuries that are extraordinarily recent. Even the weekend is a very young concept. Doctors haven't been washing their hands between patients for very long, and operations, anaesthetic, germs, vitamins and minerals were unknown terms not so long ago. People haven't been washing their whole bodies at all, or even parts of it regularly, for most of history. The logical consequence of all of this, as far as I can see, is for us to reconsider those things we take for granted, which is never a bad thing. For me, this is another way of disempowering the almighty status quo, calling into question the norms we take for granted by showing how they are culturally determined and stubbornly anchored to an historical context. It's easy to read, it's full of facts you can pull out during the next awkward silence. And, to quote Winnie the Pooh, 'it's more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy ones'

  2. 4 out of 5

    Miranda Reads

    The things that were a thing back in the day boggles my mind 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. Bill Bryson goes from room to room in an ordinary house and asks questions. Questions that have never (and will never) think to ask. Why do we have four walls? How did doorways get invented? When did people s The things that were a thing back in the day boggles my mind 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. Bill Bryson goes from room to room in an ordinary house and asks questions. Questions that have never (and will never) think to ask. Why do we have four walls? How did doorways get invented? When did people start eating in the kitchen? Where do dining tables originate? 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. You see? It's just fascinating - so, so many unasked questions and fabulously researched answers. This book is just chock-full of tangents - often leading down rabbit-holes to equally interesting topics: 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. Highly, highly recommended for a fun read that will have you looking twice at everything in your house. All my unasked questions are now answered. It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before. Audiobook comments Excellent to listen to - I felt like the reader was just as excited as I was!! Blog | Instagram | Twitter

  3. 5 out of 5

    Anita

    If Bill Bryson and Sarah Vowell wrote all the history texts, and Mary Roach wrote all the science texts, our society would be more educated and amused than anywhere on earth. I want to say that this book was a greatly informative text on the history of sanitation, architecture, anglo-saxon culture, farming, growth of cities, and society in general, but I'm afraid that would put you off. This is the story of his house in England. He takes us through each room discussing the history, scientific br If Bill Bryson and Sarah Vowell wrote all the history texts, and Mary Roach wrote all the science texts, our society would be more educated and amused than anywhere on earth. I want to say that this book was a greatly informative text on the history of sanitation, architecture, anglo-saxon culture, farming, growth of cities, and society in general, but I'm afraid that would put you off. This is the story of his house in England. He takes us through each room discussing the history, scientific breakthroughs, and characters that helped create it. Through this device, we learn the history of English and American culture and everyday life. Bryson is such an entertaining and knowledgeable writer that he informs while amusing us. He tells the stories of numerous inventors and craftsmen that are important but obscure. He tells those fascinating incidents that make us laugh and ponder how we got to where we are today. I learned more from this book than I did from a year's worth of history classes in college. He is even a good reader-the audiobook is narrated by him and is often laugh out loud funny. Reading the book is laugh out loud funny too. More miraculously, he is the only author that both Rick and I read and agree on.

  4. 3 out of 5

    Erin

    Let me preface this review by saying that, yes, I am a fan of Bill Bryson and I love history books. At Home is not Bryson's best work. Its loosely-organized premise (a room-by-room history of everyday life and everyday objects) feels overly-contrived and, in practice, makes for a rather clumsy and wandering book. I could only put up with a very little bit at a time. It took me a month to finish. Nevertheless, I'm glad I read it. There are sundry interesting factoids to be had here, and you'll be a Let me preface this review by saying that, yes, I am a fan of Bill Bryson and I love history books. At Home is not Bryson's best work. Its loosely-organized premise (a room-by-room history of everyday life and everyday objects) feels overly-contrived and, in practice, makes for a rather clumsy and wandering book. I could only put up with a very little bit at a time. It took me a month to finish. Nevertheless, I'm glad I read it. There are sundry interesting factoids to be had here, and you'll be amazed at some of the surprising stories behind the development of modern life. I couldn't help but read some passages aloud to my husband, and there's plenty of "Did you know..." ammunition here to keep you stocked for many dinner parties to come :) In all honesty, this IS a book I would go back and read again. If you love Bryson, you'll be willing to put up with his meandering style, in return for his charming and congenial brand of storytelling. (In lesser hands than his, this book would be completely dry and dull. Though it's also likely no publisher would publish a book like this if not for Bill Bryson.) If you've not read Bryson before, don't let this book be your first. Start instead with one of his many travel-essay books or his childhood memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. He's much better there.

  5. 3 out of 5

    William Ramsay

    This is a very hard book to categorize. Ostensibly, it's a description of the author's home in England, but that really doesn't cover it. All I could think of as I was reading it was a great conversation. If we went to his home - an English parsonage built in 1851 - for dinner we would, of course, talk about the house, but like all really great conversation the talk would ramble off in every direction with stories that had nothing to do with this particular house or houses in general for that ma This is a very hard book to categorize. Ostensibly, it's a description of the author's home in England, but that really doesn't cover it. All I could think of as I was reading it was a great conversation. If we went to his home - an English parsonage built in 1851 - for dinner we would, of course, talk about the house, but like all really great conversation the talk would ramble off in every direction with stories that had nothing to do with this particular house or houses in general for that matter only to touch base again and ramble of in another direction. That a discussion of English parsonages could cover the building of the Erie canal and the use of children in coal mines is not something usually found in history books - but can be found in a great dinner conversation. The fact that it is so rambling and disjointed caused one reviewer on Amazon to give it a one star rating. Poor man. He missed the point. Try a little more wine and enjoy the conversation. I loved the book!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Diane

    I have a brain crush on Bill Bryson. I find his books entertaining, insightful and delightfully humorous. "At Home" did not disappoint, giving a fascinating, rambling, Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink view of world history. The book is structured into chapters based on the different parts of a house, such as the kitchen, the drawing room, the cellar, the bedroom, etc. In the introduction, Bryson explains that he and his wife moved into a former church rectory in a village in eastern England, and s I have a brain crush on Bill Bryson. I find his books entertaining, insightful and delightfully humorous. "At Home" did not disappoint, giving a fascinating, rambling, Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink view of world history. The book is structured into chapters based on the different parts of a house, such as the kitchen, the drawing room, the cellar, the bedroom, etc. In the introduction, Bryson explains that he and his wife moved into a former church rectory in a village in eastern England, and some odd quirks of the Victorian house piqued his interest. Soon he was investigating why things are the way they are, and he shares some interesting stories of yesteryear. For example, why are salt and pepper the two main spices on a dining table? How was cement discovered? Who decided how stairs should be sized? When was the fuse box created? Why is there a telephone in the hallway? And on and on, covering dozens of inventions and events. One of the many things I liked about this book was the wide variety of topics discussed and how briskly Bryson moves through them. If he hits a subject you don't care for or one that you already know about, just wait a few minutes and he'll move on to something else. For example, during the chapter on the bathroom he discusses various cholera epidemics in England and who figured out that contaminated water was the problem, which is a subject I'm familiar with having read the excellent book "The Ghost Map." So I waited patiently for Bryson to summarize the cholera info, and very soon he was on to discussing how London's sewer system was developed. Brilliant! The book is wonderfully well-written -- as all Bryson books are -- and to try and pull good quotes is an exercise in retyping most of the text. But here are a few tidbits: "It was unquestionably a strange world. Servants constituted a class of humans whose existences were fundamentally devoted to making certain that another class of humans would find everything they desired within arm's reach more or less the moment it occurred to them to desire it." (from The Scullery and Larder) "Salt is now so ubiquitous and cheap that we forget how intensely desirable it once was, but for much of history it drove men to the edge of the world." (from The Dining Room) "To the unending exasperation of the Chinese authorities, Britain became particularly skilled at persuading Chinese citizens to become opium addicts -- university courses in the history of marketing really ought to begin with British opium sales -- so much so that by 1838 Britain was selling almost five million pounds of opium to China every year." (from The Dining Room) "The real problem with beds, certainly by the Victorian period, was that they were inseparable from that most troublesome of activities, sex ... To avoid arousal, women were instructed to get plenty of fresh air, avoid stimulating pastimes like reading and card games, and above all never to use their brains more than was strictly necessary." (from The Bedroom) "So Whitney's [cotton] gin not only helped make many people rich on both sides of the Atlantic but also reinvigorated slavery, turned child labor into a necessity, and paved the way for the American Civil War. Perhaps at no other time in history has someone with a simple, well-meaning invention generated more general prosperity, personal disappointment, and inadvertent suffering than Eli Whitney with his gin." (from The Dressing Room) And on the first time that someone successfully drilled for oil in 1859: "Although no one remotely appreciated it at the time, they had just changed the world completely and forever." (from The Fuse Box) I listened to "At Home" on audiobook, but I was glad to also have a print copy available to flip through because the printed book contains numerous photos and drawings of things referenced in the text, such as the Stone Age structure of Skara Brae, the famous Crystal Palace in 1851, the Eiffel Tower under construction, and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home. There is also an impressive list of references for anyone who wants to do further research. This was the first time I've heard Bryson's voice. He is from my home state of Iowa (which has been humorously discussed in several of his books), but he has lived in England for so long that he's developed a charming accent. Bryson is a marvelous narrator and I hope to listen to his other books on audio, even ones I've read before. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a whimsical look at history.

  7. 3 out of 5

    Eric_W

    Bryson brings us another fascinating tome filled with delightful trivia and anecdotes in this history of housing in Britain. The “hall” as we know it today is a place to leave the muddy boots and hang coats. Originally, it *was* the whole house. With an open hearth in the middle and members of the family (this included slaves and servants since the one large room made everyone party of the unit) congregating around it, little was private and everyone shared in the heat (or lack thereof.) The inv Bryson brings us another fascinating tome filled with delightful trivia and anecdotes in this history of housing in Britain. The “hall” as we know it today is a place to leave the muddy boots and hang coats. Originally, it *was* the whole house. With an open hearth in the middle and members of the family (this included slaves and servants since the one large room made everyone party of the unit) congregating around it, little was private and everyone shared in the heat (or lack thereof.) The invention of the chimney and fireplace (in the early 14th century) changed all that. Now private spaces could be created including an upstairs and separate rooms from which lesser members of the unit could be excluded. Sometimes fireplaces were built big enough to have seats in them since they radiated much less heat than the open hearth. On the other hand, smoke collecting on the ceiling would prevent birds from nesting there and many people complained that without the smoke they were more subject to ill-health. Bryson, as is his wont and to my delight, wanders all over the place. His section on food, the politics and reality of adulteration, and the early methods for saving and transporting ice are simply fascinating. Lots of delectable trivia regarding eating habits and what they ate. The 18th century was notoriously gluttonous. Queen Anne got so fat she couldn’t walk upstairs and had to be lowered and raised through a trapdoor in the floor. That must have been a sight. And they ate foods we would never consider eating and sometimes vice versa. Lobster was considered such trash food that it was often written into agreements with servants they would not be served it more than twice a week, and in Massachusetts it was forbidden to serve it to prisoners. On the other hand in America Sturgeon was so plentiful that caviar was laid out on bars as snack food. The relationship between servants and upper crust is detailed enough to provide a useful companion to Gosford Park. It’s perhaps ironic that servants might be said to really run the place and the tipping required of guests could make a weekend visit to the manor expensive indeed. Servants in America had a more egalitarian position - except in the South where slavery predominated. (It was pretty much abolished in the North after 1827.) The presence of servants and slaves had an effect on inventiveness and northern America was particularly adept at developing labor-saving devices although it must be noted that most of the labor saved was that done by men, some of the devices even increasing the workload of women. Electricity was to change all of that, and by WWI when blackout restrictions were vigorously enforced, people soon realized how accustomed they had become to having some ambient light at night. Cars were forbidden from even having dash lights so moving about at night became a distinct hazard. Bryson notes that during the first year of the war some 4000 people were killed in traffic accidents, a 100% increase over the previous year and the Germans, without dropping a bomb, were killing Britons at the rate of 600 per month. This book serves as a welcome antidote to those of us suffering from a delusional nostalgia for the past when the society we yearn for existed only among the rich; the rest dying young from numerous diseases we no longer even recognize, or working at laborious twelve-hour jobs for miserable pay, and having nothing to show for it. One of the most interesting sections dealt with the hazards of paint and wallpaper. I had no idea. Apparently, wallpaper was filled with toxic chemicals including a form of arsenic and moving a patient outside to fresher air had real benefits. It was noted early on that rooms with wallpaper had no bedbugs -- for good reason. Paint, as we now know, was also filled with noxious toxins and vivid, bright colors were prized, unlike the muted pastels we seem to favor today. The temptation when reading such a book is to fill one’s review with delectable tidbits of trivia, a temptation to which I usually succumb. And, by the way, Thomas Jefferson created the french fry.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    Reading this book is rather like having a trivia buff give you a sixteen-hour, cocaine-fueled tour of his house. It is exhilarating, exhausting, and often alarming.

  9. 3 out of 5

    Jason Koivu

    Well that wasn't very "at home" at all, quite frankly! But hey, it was still good! In At Home: A Short History of Private Life Bill Bryson, that transient American-Brit, is in England for this look at the house, that thing humans use to keep the rain off their heads. If you've ever gone out for a drive you've probably seen one. Using the house he bought in the Norfolk area of England (northeast of London), Bryson takes us for a lengthy and meandering tour of each room of the standard home from th Well that wasn't very "at home" at all, quite frankly! But hey, it was still good! In At Home: A Short History of Private Life Bill Bryson, that transient American-Brit, is in England for this look at the house, that thing humans use to keep the rain off their heads. If you've ever gone out for a drive you've probably seen one. Using the house he bought in the Norfolk area of England (northeast of London), Bryson takes us for a lengthy and meandering tour of each room of the standard home from the cellar to the attic. He also details a few different styles of homes over time and takes in a good deal of history in the bargain...Western history that is, and most of that is specific to the UK and US. The function, usage, transformation and more of each room is described, occasionally exhaustively. Tangents ensue often and are sometimes longwinded. For instance, while discussing the bedroom Bryson goes beyond sex and sleeping, getting on to the topics of surgical practices and the Plague among other things. As luck would have it, I'm the sort of person who loves facts, factoids, tidbits, walking encyclopedias, and brainiacs. When someone starts a sentence with "Did you know...", I'm the guy pulling my chair up closer. I am Bryson's perfect audience. Not everyone is, so I expect quite a few readers would be annoyed by the writer's wandering ways, especially house-lovers who aren't necessarily interested in Samuel Pepys' extramarital affairs and who just want to focus on the bloody house for the love of Frank Lloyd Wright! However, even I have my limits and this is probably my least favorite Bryson book so far, but that's not to say it's bad. It's quite good and I really enjoyed it. The thing is, I REALLY enjoyed the other books of his I've read so far and this one lacks the joy and exuberance of the others. RATING: 3.5

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nandakishore Varma

    "If you had to summarise it in one sentence, the history of domestic life is the history of getting comfortable slowly." Whew... Ladies and gentlemen, I have spent an exhausting yet exhilarating ten days with Bill Bryson at his Norfolk home. When he invited me to take a look at this former Church of England rectory, I hardly expected spend more than an afternoon there - a spot of tea, maybe a couple of beers in the evening, along with the promised tour of the house. But I got much more than I bar "If you had to summarise it in one sentence, the history of domestic life is the history of getting comfortable slowly." Whew... Ladies and gentlemen, I have spent an exhausting yet exhilarating ten days with Bill Bryson at his Norfolk home. When he invited me to take a look at this former Church of England rectory, I hardly expected spend more than an afternoon there - a spot of tea, maybe a couple of beers in the evening, along with the promised tour of the house. But I got much more than I bargained for. Initially, Bill took me up to the attic (we had to clamber up a stepladder and wiggle through a ceiling hatch - an extremely uncomfortable exercise, mind you) to show me a small door which opened out into a curious rooftop space, which afforded a view of the countryside which was breathtaking and panoramic. As I stood entranced, drinking it up, Bill asked me whether I would like to chat with him about domestic life - and I agreed. What followed was an expedition through the house, starting with the hall and ending, once again, in the attic. But I must confess I had little time to notice the features of the domicile in particular, as Bill was filling my head with an absolute avalanche of trivia connected with domestic life in Britain and the United States of America. After giving me a general background on the era on which he was going to hang his exposition of domesticity (the Victorian Age, with the 1851 Great Exhibition as its pivot) and the development of English clergy in general, Bill Bryson properly got going on how the British forgot all about the civilised Roman Era and started from scratch once they left England. In the hall, he told me that most homes were just that - a big hall - until the 1500's, when the fireplace was invented and people could think of building upstairs; till then, the people all lived together communally and slept, ate and copulated around a roaring fire in the middle of the room. He gave so many fascinating details (though some of them were definitely unsavoury) that my head was hopelessly spinning by the time he pulled me into the kitchen and started to talk about how eating habits developed and changed. The things he told me! I am extremely glad that I did not have to visit England prior to the advent of ice in 1844, let me tell you (though being something of a trencherman, I would have been perfectly at home in the eighteenth century - if I was able to ignore the quality of meat an fish on the table, that is). Going now into the scullery and ladder, the discussion turned to the subject of domestic servants - how great a workforce was required, and how they had to be punishingly overworked, to keep the gentry in comfort. I was so blown away by the account that I asked him why there hadn't been a revolution. Bill then told me that even though life was tough for a servant, most country houses were lived in only a two to three months a year, so they had a relatively calm life for the rest of the year: and considering the circumstances, they made good money. Under the fusebox, Bill waxed lyrical about electricity, and how it changed domestic life for ever - about how unsafe it was initially, but how ultimately this elemental force was tamed by mankind. Happily here I could contribute something to the conversation, as I work in the field of safety and am aware of how the concept of electrical safety is improving day by day. Now he took me down to the cellar. I was expecting to be treated to some vintage wine, but no: Bill started on giving me a lecture on the building of the Erie Canal! It was quite some time before I caught his gist - he was talking about house construction in general, and about bricks in particular. The exposition was so interesting that I forgot the damp and mustiness, I must tell you. Then we came up to the passage. Here also, the subject was only tenuously connected to the room: we talked about the Eiffel Tower (of all things!), the development of architecture and civil engineering (a subject which interested me), concrete and the invention of the telephone, based on an instrument of this particular family sitting quietly in an alcove in a corner. We moved on to the study then, a dark and dingy room, which was never used for the purpose it was named for - or so Bill said. Here, he began to expound at length on mice, rats, bats, locusts, microbes and myriad other pests until I was on tenterhooks, expecting a rat to take a bite at my ankle at any moment! By this time, I wanted a breath of fresh air very badly, so Bill took me out into the garden. He told that my apprehensions were quite understandable: it was the same obsession that Britons had for fresh air (and the rather mistaken belief that all maladies were the product of bad odours) that led to so many of the beautiful gardens and parks we see in England. He then gave me such a fascinating history of parks and gardens in England and America that left me spellbound. This was undoubtedly the most pleasurable part of the tour. After a while, we went in again, and visited the "Plum Room". Bill confessed that he did not know what it was used for - they called it that because the walls were painted that colour. He hazarded a guess that the original rector, Mr. Marsham may have used it as a library. It was built in great architectural style: and the mere mention of the fact sent Bill into the history of ornate architecture. It was originally conceived by an Italian stonemason named Andrea di Pietro della Gondola - better known as Palladio - in the sixteenth century, and copied by stately homes in England and America in later centuries. The most famous examples are Monticello in Virginia built by Thomas Jefferson and Mount Vernon in Colombia built by George Washington. We climbed up to the bedroom now; and on the way, Bill explained to me the dangers of staircase climbing (the main safety hazard in any home) and the history of paint, through an extremely toxic past to the relatively safe present. But in the bedroom (one my favourite places in my house), Bill treated me to such stories of horror that I was almost sick. Beginning with the extremely uncomfortable nature of old-time mattresses, he proceeded to sex and how it was seen as a lamentable necessity; the horrific devices employed to stop "self abuse"; the travails suffered by women because doctors knew nothing about their anatomy; the ravages of syphilis; and finally about surgery without anesthesia, the disposal of dead bodies... well, you get the point, I guess. But these were nothing compared to the stories of squalor he related in the bathroom. It seems that up until the eighteenth century when Dr. Richard Russell popularised his water cures, Britons were strongly opposed to exposing themselves to water. (There was the story of a lady who had not bathed for 28 years, and the Marquis d'Argens, who wore the same undershirt for so many years that when it was removed finally, pieces of his skin came along with it.) As if this was not enough, Bill started talking about toilets, and... no, better hear that yourself; just the memory of that scatological exposition makes me sick. When we entered the dressing room next, however, Bill came off this morbid thought stream and started discussing about fashions - about how Victorians made dressing a sort of torture with the men's wigs, women's tall hairdos, and impossible dress items such as the corset and the crinoline. He also educated me on the history of cotton - a fascinating subject. Then we came to the nursery. I thought this would be one of the areas for discussing the pleasantest subjects - but guess what? Bill took me to streets of Victorian London: the filth, the squalor, and the inhumanity. This was the world of Oliver Twist and the chimney sweeps, where poor children could hope to survive for a maximum of twelve years with backbreaking labour. Even though not life-threatening, however, life was no cakewalk for well-to-do children also: they lived in a loveless world of strictures and duty, with frightening stories and the ever present cane to keep them in line. I thought then that the tour was over. But no: Bill hauled me up to the attic again, and gave a scholarly lecture on Charles Darwin and Sir John Lubbock, the man responsible for the preservation of most of Britain's archaeological heritage and also the creator of the secular public holiday. He also talked wistfully about the stately homes which disappeared due to the agricultural crisis of 1870. As we were climbing down, he said: "Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a European, or every twenty-eight hours by an American. We are, in short, able to live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet's other citizens. One day - and don't expect it to be a distant day - many of those six billion or so less well off people are bound to demand to have what we have, and to get it as easily as we got it, and that will require more resources that this planet can easily, or even conceivably, yield." Sobering thought, that. ------------------------ Well, Bill, I really enjoyed my visit with you. But pardon me if I do not make another visit in the near future. I need some time to digest all these information that you have poured into my head!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Trevor

    There are quite a few people I know and respect that don’t really like Bill Bryson. I’ve never quite understood why not. I’m actually very fond of his writing and from this distance I even tend to think he has the perfect life. I mean, you would think that the word dilettante (or perhaps autodidact) had been created just for him. Wouldn’t you love to have the time to think to yourself, ‘gosh, I wonder how houses first came to be as they are’ – and then to spend, I don’t know, a year? two years? There are quite a few people I know and respect that don’t really like Bill Bryson. I’ve never quite understood why not. I’m actually very fond of his writing and from this distance I even tend to think he has the perfect life. I mean, you would think that the word dilettante (or perhaps autodidact) had been created just for him. Wouldn’t you love to have the time to think to yourself, ‘gosh, I wonder how houses first came to be as they are’ – and then to spend, I don’t know, a year? two years? finding out. Then once you have found out to write down all of your more amusing titbits in an engaging book. Does it really get better than that? I’ve been known to complain about what I call ‘whiteboard books’ before. These are the kinds of books that are written on a topic that has popped into someone’s head – say, potatoes – and first they go to a whiteboard and draw a huge mindmap and then ardently fill in all the gaps – although, sometimes ardent isn’t quite the right adjective, the resulting meal having too much of the texture of bran. Generally, these books need a unifying theme – in the case of this book a walk around the person’s house, or in say Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories the seven ages of man. These unifying frames often don’t quite work the whole way though the book, the frame struggles to contain all of the picture – and if I had one criticism of this book it was that there were quite a few times when I thought, ‘hang on, which room are we supposed to be in again? Why is he talking about this in the passage?’ But the truth is that you need to more or less put the organising scheme out of your mind when you read these kinds of books (otherwise that way madness lies) and just take these books as being a kind of ideal dinner party with someone chatting away amusingly and knowledgeably about things it would be hard not to find interesting. That is, the kind of dinner party you might wish you actually got invited too. Which really must be one of the great benefits of books. I think we don’t actually read just to know we are not alone – we read to spend time with people being at their best behaviour and trying hard to be at their most interesting. Few people can really sustain this for an entire book – Bryson has proven able to sustain it throughout many, many volumes. The part of this book I found the most interesting was right towards the end where he does his best to dispel the myth that childhood is a very recent invention and that parents loving their children is likewise a modern idea brought about by the remarkable drop in infant mortality the last hundred years have brought about. The idea that people ‘couldn’t afford’ to love their children – because their subsequent dying in infancy would be too painful for them to allow such affection – can almost seem to make sense in a strange sort of way. However, I think he makes it clear that, really, such a view is pretty well counter to all of the evidence. This is a book where someone wanders about picking up interesting bits and pieces that initially might seem quite commonplace and then explaining just what it is that makes them quite so interesting. It is light read, but never slight, and just often enough makes you smile or laugh or gasp in revulsion in that way everyone enjoys. This was lots of fun and well worth the read.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    A fun and mind expanding tour of Anglo-American cultural history structured loosely around the rooms of his Victorian rector’s house in village in Norfolk, England. If you have experienced the pleasures of some of his travel books, you will recognize his method of using an experience in the present as a launching pad for circles of digression down many fascinating paths before returning with amazing insights into the curious behaviors and marvelous accomplishments of human creativity. It all sta A fun and mind expanding tour of Anglo-American cultural history structured loosely around the rooms of his Victorian rector’s house in village in Norfolk, England. If you have experienced the pleasures of some of his travel books, you will recognize his method of using an experience in the present as a launching pad for circles of digression down many fascinating paths before returning with amazing insights into the curious behaviors and marvelous accomplishments of human creativity. It all started for him with wondering about oddities of his house, which led to a basic curiosity about how living in houses evolved. A farmer neighbor’s discovery of a Roman artefact in a field made him consider why the civilized comforts of home enjoyed by the Romans took so long to reinvent: 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 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. As an example, he uses a room like the kitchen for excursions into the history of diet, food preparation, food borne disease, appliances, cookbooks, entertaining, etiquette, and servants. The obscene and often absurd excesses of the aristocracy makes for delicious forays, outdone only be American wannabes of the likes of Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Even for a country rector like the man who occupied his house experienced a typical meal recorded in a published 1794 diary: Dover sole in lobster sauce, spring chicken, ox tongue, roast beef, soup, fillet of veal with morels and ruffles, pigeon pie, sweetbreads, green goose and peas, apricot jam, cheesecakes, stewed musrooms and trifle Beyond obvious rooms like the bedroom, dining room, and bathroom, others used for his explorations include scullery, larder, nursery, cellar, attic, stairway, and garden. As just one example, the innovation of glass windows leads you to the story of William Paxton’s construction in five months of the Glass Palace in Hyde Park, the largest building in the world and built from a million square feet of glass and cast iron struts to house 14,000 exhibits of progress of the Industrial Age. By the time you are done you will have an appreciation of hidden connections of history and creativity that underlie the domestic life we take for granted. Along the way you have a frame to hang a lot of knowledge from such fields as art, architecture, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, economics, public health, and technology. The kaleiodoscope of the reading experience makes for a fascinating ride that doesn’t always cohere to a logical. With Bryson, that doesn’t matter as his curiosity, erudition, and wit draws you eagerly on in the adventure of his journey.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jeanette "Astute Crabbist"

    Bill Bryson's curiosity is boundless, and he loves research. He seems to have a particular fondness for digging up bizarre, creepy, and freaky tidbits to share with his readers. If you don't mind skimming over the dull parts, At Home is worth reading for all the trivia and historical weirdness Bryson shares. The book is essentially a history of domestic life in Britain and America--its comforts and discomforts, and the inventions along the way that made things easier and cleaner. I found both th Bill Bryson's curiosity is boundless, and he loves research. He seems to have a particular fondness for digging up bizarre, creepy, and freaky tidbits to share with his readers. If you don't mind skimming over the dull parts, At Home is worth reading for all the trivia and historical weirdness Bryson shares. The book is essentially a history of domestic life in Britain and America--its comforts and discomforts, and the inventions along the way that made things easier and cleaner. I found both the title and chapter headings to be a bit misleading, but Bryson was going for a sort of theme that didn't quite come together. If he'd dropped the theme, the book could have been organized a lot more sensibly. Several of the chapters could be named Architecture, More Architecture, and Still More Architecture. I had to scan over all the long architectural descriptions. I like to look at architecture, but it numbs my brain to read about it. The chapter called The Passage should be entitled VERMIN! *shudder* And the chapter called The Garden would be more appropriately called Cemeteries, Guano, and More Vermin. Oh, and trust me on this: You do NOT want to read the chapter on The Bathroom at any time directly before, during, or directly after meals. GROSS! If you like history and don't mind "editing" as you go along (i.e. scan past the boring stuff), you can learn a lot from this book. If nothing else, it will cure you forever of wishing you lived in "the good old days." As a little teaser, here are some of the strange, fascinating, and alarming things you'll discover in this book: * In the 1780s, it was fashionable to wear fake eyebrows made of mouse skin. * Contrary to common legend, the person who invented the brassiere was not named Otto Titzling. * If you completely remove zinc from your diet, your taste buds will stop working. * A sample of ice cream in London in 1881 contained human hair, cat hair, insects, and cotton fibers, among other things. EEEEEEEWWWWW! * If a girl wears a corset six days a week, she can reduce her waist size from 23 inches to 13 inches in just two years. * The expression "in the limelight" comes from the days before light bulbs, when they actually burned lumps of lime to light up the theater stage. *Of the total energy produced on Earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in just the last twenty years. (Wake up, America.)

  14. 5 out of 5

    Darwin8u

    “It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.” ― Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life Bryson uses his own family's Victorian parsonage to map out the history (mainly focused on the 18th - 20th Century) of the private life. His discussion of specific rooms ends up allowing Bryson to tangent off onto related topics as wide and varied as sex, family, shit, medicine, architecture, makeup, rope-making, “It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.” ― Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life Bryson uses his own family's Victorian parsonage to map out the history (mainly focused on the 18th - 20th Century) of the private life. His discussion of specific rooms ends up allowing Bryson to tangent off onto related topics as wide and varied as sex, family, shit, medicine, architecture, makeup, rope-making, etc. This book is a movement through a house that allows Bryson to riff on people and ideas that are funny, iconic, and always peculiar. Bryson is amazing at flipping over a stone and telling three different stories about the stone, the flip, and the bugs hiding underneath the stone. He will also examine the shoe that flipped the stone and occasionally inserts his own experience with stones and shoes. There is rarely a Bryson book that I hasn't made me laugh verbally while reading and filled me with a sort of awe at his ease at relaying interesting trivia and making you look at a place (his travelogues are amazing), a time, or a people in a different way. My wife and I share a love of books, but the oven diagrams of our interests don't often intersect. Bill Bryson is one of those authors we can both read, both enjoy, and often quote back and forth as we read. He seems to possess the same, self-efacing, Midwestern wit as Garrison Keillor, but with just a bit more Anglophile whipped in. This book follows his the model of his other expansive history: A Short History of Nearly Everything.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Andy

    This book has lots of interesting factoids but these are buried under many pages-long avalanches of words about "unfairly neglected" minor personages of history. It sort of delivers on the promise of telling us something about the home we live in and what's inside it, but the cost of that information is a ton of tangential trivia I found extremely boring. Others surely find all the meandering anecdotes entertaining and that's fine, but then the book should be titled something like "shooting the This book has lots of interesting factoids but these are buried under many pages-long avalanches of words about "unfairly neglected" minor personages of history. It sort of delivers on the promise of telling us something about the home we live in and what's inside it, but the cost of that information is a ton of tangential trivia I found extremely boring. Others surely find all the meandering anecdotes entertaining and that's fine, but then the book should be titled something like "shooting the breeze with Bill Bryson; a rather long history of inconsequential trivia." I liked the premise of the book and was hoping for something that stuck with it and got to the point a bit more often.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Petra X

    Tremendously interesting history book for people with ADD and butterfly minds. It's as if someone had taken an encyclopedia and very cleverly joined all the entries so it looked like a proper book. Oh, it was a proper book! Well then, very clever.

  17. 3 out of 5

    James

    For Bill Bryson, this is poor: What could have a fascinating, amusing and insightful social history turns out to be a meandering series of not very interesting or particularly entertaining passages on the vague subject of the 'home' and 'private life'. The whole book unfortunately just feels poorly edited, unfocussed and directionless. As a fan of Bill Bryson's books, this one came as a somewhat of a disappointment. Having now read his subsequent books - it is good to know that he is once again ( For Bill Bryson, this is poor: What could have a fascinating, amusing and insightful social history turns out to be a meandering series of not very interesting or particularly entertaining passages on the vague subject of the 'home' and 'private life'. The whole book unfortunately just feels poorly edited, unfocussed and directionless. As a fan of Bill Bryson's books, this one came as a somewhat of a disappointment. Having now read his subsequent books - it is good to know that he is once again (for the most part) back on form. This one is for completists only.

  18. 3 out of 5

    Bettie☯

    Read by His Nibs himself. Description: “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a histor Read by His Nibs himself. Description: “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has figured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.Everything AND the kitchen sink in this one. Even though I was late to this particular house party, the praise I mentally lavish on 'At Home' will make up for this tardiness.

  19. 3 out of 5

    Melki

    It took me a while to warm up to this one. All the other Bill Bryson books I've read have been about, well...Bill Bryson. HIS trip to Australia - In a Sunburned Country, HIS hike on the Appalachian Trail - A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, HIS childhood in Iowa - The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. This book seemed mostly like a list of facts. Then around chapter five, The Scullery and Larder, while I was learning about servants and the running of massive It took me a while to warm up to this one. All the other Bill Bryson books I've read have been about, well...Bill Bryson. HIS trip to Australia - In a Sunburned Country, HIS hike on the Appalachian Trail - A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, HIS childhood in Iowa - The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. This book seemed mostly like a list of facts. Then around chapter five, The Scullery and Larder, while I was learning about servants and the running of massive estates - one house had 600 copper pots and pans! - I fell under its spell. True, the book is a collection of facts, but what fascinating facts they are. Everything from the spice trade to the building of the Erie canal to why a fork has four tines. Bryson's meandering style may drive some readers to drink. A little of this, a little of that...no deep delving on any subject, but I liked it. He manages to trip merrily from bedding material to syphilis to mourning rituals in a matter of 14 pages. Quite honestly, I found the few pages he devoted to London's 1854 cholera outbreak just as informative as the almost 300 page The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. I added many titles from the bibliography to my "to-be-read" list, so thanks for that, Bryson. I think.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    I really love Bill Bryson...entertaining, enlightening, and an all around good read. I'm now driving my wife crazy by bringing up little "tid-bit" facts that I learned from this book. Full review shortly but I wanted to at least move this off my "reading" to the "done" state.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Carl Williams

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I read this book against my better judgement, and indeed my judgement was right. Having read A Walk in the Woods by the same author, my daughter's mother-in-law, though I was quite open about not liking it, thought I'd like this one. And I do like this kind of book...one that wanders around history making unexpected connections and has little asides of coincidence. But I find Bryson to be arrogant and patronizing. Clearly an Anglophile he speaks with disdain of other nationalities. If you don't b I read this book against my better judgement, and indeed my judgement was right. Having read A Walk in the Woods by the same author, my daughter's mother-in-law, though I was quite open about not liking it, thought I'd like this one. And I do like this kind of book...one that wanders around history making unexpected connections and has little asides of coincidence. But I find Bryson to be arrogant and patronizing. Clearly an Anglophile he speaks with disdain of other nationalities. If you don't believe he's full of himself and his stilted writing style full of double negatives and passive sentences don't mark him as a fine intellect, his numerous parenthetical comments, underlining his own self-defined cleverness and the foolhardy-ness of the rest of the world should convince you. Jeeze. There are some fine books in this genre....but this isn't one of them.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jenne

    Ooh, yes please. This is juuust the kind of thing I like. It reminds me of trying to organize a closet, where one thing leads to something else, and something else, and something else until you find yourself in the middle of re-installing a light fixture and you look over and the closet is in a mess all over the floor...anyway where was I? Yeah, anyway, it's actually much better organized than I make it sound, and somehow manages to be organized chronologically AND spatially AND at the same time Ooh, yes please. This is juuust the kind of thing I like. It reminds me of trying to organize a closet, where one thing leads to something else, and something else, and something else until you find yourself in the middle of re-installing a light fixture and you look over and the closet is in a mess all over the floor...anyway where was I? Yeah, anyway, it's actually much better organized than I make it sound, and somehow manages to be organized chronologically AND spatially AND at the same time charming, and on practically every page you go "huh! I didn't know that!" Warning: the "Bedroom" and "Nursery" chapters are not for the faint of heart.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lena

    When Bill Bryson moved into an old rectory in the English countryside, he became curious about the various features of his house and how they came into being. In At Home, he traces the development of human domestic living from its often unexpected origins to the taken-for-granted, gadget-filled dwellings we now live in. This is my first book of Bryson's, but I will definitely be reading more. He has a clear, engaging style that has a way of making everything he talks about deeply interesting. Whi When Bill Bryson moved into an old rectory in the English countryside, he became curious about the various features of his house and how they came into being. In At Home, he traces the development of human domestic living from its often unexpected origins to the taken-for-granted, gadget-filled dwellings we now live in. This is my first book of Bryson's, but I will definitely be reading more. He has a clear, engaging style that has a way of making everything he talks about deeply interesting. While I have never consciously needed to know things like who first struck upon the idea of selling ice for food preservation or what the "board" in room and board actually referred to or why all suits have those useless buttons on the sleeves, I finished this book feeling like enormous gaps in my knowledge of basic history had suddenly been filled. I also came away from this book being exceedingly grateful that I live in the century that I do and not in, say, pre-sewer system 19th century London. While Bryson's discussion of certain aspects of our attempts to develop civilized living is not always pleasant, the majority of the book is both educating and entertaining, and well recommended.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ana Rînceanu

    The book is well written and I enjoyed it, but it's a little disjointed and the subtitle is misleading. It's not about the history of private life, of how people lived, but a history of the materials that make up the house and the general way certain society in general viewed varying aspects of domesticity. Very little of the idea of private life (how the concept started, flourished and became what it is today) is touched upon. Still, this is a good book with interesting historical details and I The book is well written and I enjoyed it, but it's a little disjointed and the subtitle is misleading. It's not about the history of private life, of how people lived, but a history of the materials that make up the house and the general way certain society in general viewed varying aspects of domesticity. Very little of the idea of private life (how the concept started, flourished and became what it is today) is touched upon. Still, this is a good book with interesting historical details and I'm glad to have read it.

  25. 3 out of 5

    Anna H

    Bill Bryson's work -- and this book in particular -- have been on my list for a long time. I finally grabbed this at the library from the staff recommendations shelf, and it is definitely a good one. I really enjoyed this volume which provides amazing, jaw-dropping, at times very funny anecdotes of how day-to-day life at home grew to what it is today, and the key dates, figures and time periods that became definitive. Bryson uses his own home, a former parsonage in England where he lives, as a ba Bill Bryson's work -- and this book in particular -- have been on my list for a long time. I finally grabbed this at the library from the staff recommendations shelf, and it is definitely a good one. I really enjoyed this volume which provides amazing, jaw-dropping, at times very funny anecdotes of how day-to-day life at home grew to what it is today, and the key dates, figures and time periods that became definitive. Bryson uses his own home, a former parsonage in England where he lives, as a base for a study of how domestic life grew and changed from the last two centuries to modern times. Each room serves as a springboard for an exploration of the activities and amenities for each room. For example, the bedroom includes a chapter on beds themselves and how sleeping arrangements evolved with bedding itself, how and from what materials it was manufactured, etc. "The Bathroom" provides a look at how indoor plumbing and sewers evolved and became commonplace. It made me grateful, as no other chapter did, that I live in the 21st century...each room contains an infinite number of opportunities to explore how life at home changed and the very concept of being comfortable came into being. My only criticism is that Bryson seemed to find so many interesting aspects of history to write about that he diverged from his initial points about domestic life throughout the book, and ended up on tangents about world history that got to be a little arcane at times. Overall, though, I loved this and plan on reading his other work, which also has come very rightly, highly recommended.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bandit

    This was awesome. Absolutely awesome. For anyone with even a passing interest in history, interior design, sociology, anthropology, cultural evolution...this is an absolute must. Took a while to get through, but so worth it. In fact, this is the first book I ever took notes for, it was simply too dense, too resplendent with facts and information...although notably unlike a textbook. Writing wise this is Bryson at his best, witty, funny, erudite, droll, expansive. Not a grumpy old man so much as This was awesome. Absolutely awesome. For anyone with even a passing interest in history, interior design, sociology, anthropology, cultural evolution...this is an absolute must. Took a while to get through, but so worth it. In fact, this is the first book I ever took notes for, it was simply too dense, too resplendent with facts and information...although notably unlike a textbook. Writing wise this is Bryson at his best, witty, funny, erudite, droll, expansive. Not a grumpy old man so much as an intelligent inquiring mind, amazed and delighted by the world's idiosyncrasies, which is actually how you might feel after reading this book. Leaving no area of the home unexplored in chapters not only exceedingly informative, but also charmingly wild with wild digressions, Bryson covers centuries of evolution as civilization has become...well, civilized properly. Proper plumbing, proper beds, proper all sorts of creature comforts. This is probably as much fun as nonfiction books can be while maintaining the learn something aura. And in fact a reader does learn, tons of information, some alarming, some odd, all fascinating, with a great anecdotal quality to them, which is partially while I took notes. Like all great educational books it doesn't just change the world, it helps you frame the world you know from an enlightened position...a terrific thing for a fairly ambitious autodidact such as myself. I'd recommend this book to anyone, any inquiring mind, any armchair historian, it's seriously great and, greatly, not all that serious in tone. Read this book.

  27. 3 out of 5

    Kathy

    This is pretty fascinating and I generally like Bill Bryson, but the book is heavily concentrated on the fascinating discoveries/inventions/accomplishments of men. Women are only mentioned for the silly things they did as the wives of these men or for writing silly books Bryson describes as "unreadable then and probably unreadable now." Apparently in all his exhaustive research on the history of private life, Bryson found no significant contributions by women.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    This is a very informative book about everyday furnishings in and around people's homes and how they evolved over the centuries. Bryson mentions that one huge English mansion had a room devoted entirely to cleaning bedpans.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Whenever I'm asked about my favorite authors, Bill Bryson always makes the list. Not only has he written a string of humorous yet informative travel narratives, he's also penned a memoir about his 1950s childhood and a variety of non-fiction books on topics as diverse as the English language, Shakespeare and a rather grand attempt at a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson is able to make whatever he is writing about amazingly interesting while also being gently humorous. I've Whenever I'm asked about my favorite authors, Bill Bryson always makes the list. Not only has he written a string of humorous yet informative travel narratives, he's also penned a memoir about his 1950s childhood and a variety of non-fiction books on topics as diverse as the English language, Shakespeare and a rather grand attempt at a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson is able to make whatever he is writing about amazingly interesting while also being gently humorous. I've always thought that if Bill Bryson wrote the history and English textbooks for schools, everyone would do their required reading and come away bursting with information and insights. Whenever someone tells me that they don't like nonfiction, I always ask if they've read Bill Bryson. To me, he is the epitome of the accessible nonfiction writer, and I would follow him anywhere. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, I followed Bryson as he toured his family home, which just so happens to be an old English parsonage. As he goes through each room, he ruminates about why we live the way we do and how the rooms and things in our homes evolved. The journey through the house is riveting and educational—answering such questions as: Why are salt and pepper the two condiments we keep on our kitchen tables? What does "board" mean in the phrase "room and board?" Why are there four tines on a fork? Why do men have a row of pointless buttons on their suit jacket sleeves? Each chapter focuses on a different room, allowing Bryson to explore things such as the history of hygiene in the bathroom, the advent of electricity while poking around the fuse box, and the important issues of sex, death and sleeping while visiting the bedroom. It is an ingenious way to structure the book, and it gives Bryson lots of leeway to ramble about wherever his interests and research took him. For the most part, Bryson focuses on the last 150 years, which encompasses the time from when his home was built until modern times—and also, as Bryson points out, when "the modern world was really born. The book is packed with interesting stories, facts, anecdotes and histories that if I took the time to tell you about all the ones that interested me, I would be writing a book myself. So, I'll content myself with sharing a few excerpts from the book that I highlighted while reading. (And even then I had to cut out a few because I highlighted so many.) On the popularity of hermitages: For a time it was highly fashionable to build a hermitage and install in it a live-in hermit. At Painshill in Surrey, one man signed a contract to live seven years in picturesque seclusion, observing a monastic silence, for £100 a year, but was fired after just three weeks when he was spotted drinking in the local pub. Statistics on stairs: Everybody trips on stairs at some time or other. It has been calculated that you are likely to miss a step once in every 2,222 occasions you use stairs, suffer a minor accident once in every 63,000 uses, suffer a painful accident once in every 734,000, and need hospital attention once every 3,616,667 uses. On Christopher Columbus: 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. He filled his holds with valueless iron pyrite (thinking it was gold) and with what he confidently believed to be cinnamon and pepper. The first was actually a worthless tree bark, and the second were not true peppers but chili peppers—excellent when you have grasped the general idea of them, but a little eye-wateringly astonishing A more interesting side effect of lead paint: One of the quirks of lead poisoning is that it causes an enlargement of the retina that makes some victims see halos around objects—an effect Vincent van Gogh famously exploited in his paintings. It is probable that he was suffering lead poisoning himself. Artists often did. On servant-master sleep arrangements: Even at home, it was entirely usual for a servant to sleep at the foot of his master’s bed, regardless of what his master might be doing within the bed. The records make clear that King Henry V’s steward and chamberlain both were present when he bedded Catherine of Valois. On the difficulties of getting medical care while being a woman: As late as 1878 the British Medical Journal was able to run a spirited and protracted correspondence on whether a menstruating woman’s touch could spoil a ham. On the dangers of life before proper sewer systems: Most sewage went into cesspits, but these were commonly neglected, and the contents often seeped into neighboring water supplies. In the worst cases they overflowed. Samuel Pepys recorded one such occasion in his diary: “Going down into my cellar … I put my foot into a great heap of turds … by which I found that Mr Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.” I just adored this book and was engrossed through all 512 pages. This is vintage Bryson, and his fans will not be disappointed. And, if you've never read a Bill Bryson book before, I strongly encourage you to do so. No one presents history with as much humor, accessibility and curiosity as Bryson. (And if there is someone who does, I need to know who it is!) And since we all live in homes of some kind, I'm sure everyone will find something of interest in this book. After all, we are all benefiting from the advances and history described in this book. For my part, I know that I'll never turn on a light, flush a toilet, sit in a chair, or walk up a flight of stairs without thinking of some anecdote from this book. Highly recommended.

  30. 3 out of 5

    Cher

    3 stars - It was good. Instead of reading this one from cover to cover, I think it would have been a more enjoyable experience if read one chapter at a time, intermittently, while reading other books. It was a bit more dry and straight forward than A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, but Bryson still made it light and funny with his delightfully witty sense of humor. ------------------------------------------- Favorite Quote: Columbus's real achievement was managing 3 stars - It was good. Instead of reading this one from cover to cover, I think it would have been a more enjoyable experience if read one chapter at a time, intermittently, while reading other books. It was a bit more dry and straight forward than A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, but Bryson still made it light and funny with his delightfully witty sense of humor. ------------------------------------------- Favorite Quote: 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. First Sentence: Some time after my wife and I moved into a former Church of England rectory in a village of tranquil anonymity in Norfolk, in the easternmost part of England, I had occasion to go up into the attic to look for the source of a slow but mysterious drip.

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