At Home (Bryson)

At Home 
Bill Bryson, 2010
Knopf Doubleday
512 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780767919388

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.

Bill Bryson has one of the liveliest, most inquisitive minds on the planet, and he is a master at turning the seemingly isolated or mundane fact into an occasion for the most diverting exposition imaginable. His wit and sheer prose fluency make At Home one of the most entertaining books ever written about private life. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 8 1951
Where—Des Moines, Iowa, USA
Education—B.A., Drake University
Awards—(see below)
Currently—lives in Norfolk, England, UK

William McGuire "Bill" Bryson is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on science. Born an American, he was a resident of North Yorkshire, UK, for most of his professional life before moving back to the US in 1995. In 2003 Bryson moved back to the UK, living in Norfolk, and was appointed Chancellor of Durham University.

Early years
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of William and Mary Bryson. He has an older brother, Michael, and a sister, Mary Jane Elizabeth.

He was educated at Drake University but dropped out in 1972, deciding to instead backpack around Europe for four months. He returned to Europe the following year with a high school friend, the pseudonymous Stephen Katz (who later appears in Bryson's A Walk in the Woods). Some of Bryson's experiences from this European trip are included as flashbacks in a book about a similar excursion written 20 years later, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe.

Staying in the UK, Bryson landed a job working in a psychiatric hospital—the now defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water in Surrey. There he met his wife Cynthia, a nurse. After marring, the couple moved to the US, in 1975, so Bryson could complete his college degree. In 1977 they moved back to the UK where they remained until 1995.

Living in North Yorkshire and working primarily as a journalist, Bryson eventually became chief copy editor of the business section of The Times, and then deputy national news editor of the business section of The Independent.

He left journalism in 1987, three years after the birth of his third child. Still living in Kirkby Malham, North Yorkshire, Bryson started writing independently, and in 1990 their fourth and final child, Sam, was born.

Bryson came to prominence in the UK with his 1995 publication of Notes from a Small Island,  an exploration of Britain. Eight years later, as part of the 2003 World Book Day, Notes was voted by UK readers as the best summing up of British identity and the state of the nation. (The same year, 2003, saw Bryson appointed a Commissioner for English Heritage.)

In 1995, Bryson and his family returned to the US, living in Hanover, New Hampshire for the next eight years. His time there is recounted in the 1999 story collection, I'm A Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to American After 20 Years Away (known as Notes from a Big Country in the UK, Canada and Australia).

It was during this time that Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz. The resulting book is the 1998 A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. The book became one of Bryson's all-time bestsellers and was adapted to film in 2015, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.

In 2003, the Brysons and their four children returned to the UK. They now live in Norfolk.

That same year, Bryson published A Short History of Nearly Everything, a 500-page exploration, in nonscientific terms, of the history of some of our scientific knowledge. The book reveals the often humble, even humorous, beginnings of some of the discoveries which we now take for granted.

The book won Bryson the prestigious 2004 Aventis Prize for best general science book and the 2005 EU Descartes Prize for science communication. Although one scientist is alleged to have jokingly described A Brief History as "annoyingly free of mistakes," Bryson himself makes no such claim, and a list of nine reported errors in the book is available online.

Bryson has also written two popular works on the history of the English language—Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990) and Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (1994). He also updated of his 1983 guide to usage, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words. These books were popularly acclaimed and well-reviewed, despite occasional criticism of factual errors, urban myths, and folk etymologies.

In 2016, Bryson published The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in England, a sequel to his Notes from a Small Island.

In 2005, Bryson was appointed Chancellor of Durham University, succeeding the late Sir Peter Ustinov, and has been particularly active with student activities, even appearing in a Durham student film (the sequel to The Assassinator) and promoting litter picks in the city. He had praised Durham as "a perfect little city" in Notes from a Small Island. He has also been awarded honorary degrees by numerous universities, including Bournemouth University and in April 2002 the Open University.

In 2006, Frank Cownie, the mayor of Des Moines, awarded Bryson the key to the city and announced that 21 October 2006 would be known as "Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid, Day."

In November 2006, Bryson interviewed the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair on the state of science and education.

On 13 December 2006, Bryson was awarded an honorary OBE for his contribution to literature. The following year, he was awarded the James Joyce Award of the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin.

In January 2007, Bryson was the Schwartz Visiting Fellow of the Pomfret School in Connecticut.

In May 2007, he became the President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. His first area focus in this role was the establishment of an anti-littering campaign across England. He discussed the future of the countryside with Richard Mabey, Sue Clifford, Nicholas Crane and Richard Girling at CPRE's Volunteer Conference in November 2007. (From Wikipedia. Adapted 2/1/2016.)

Book Reviews
Bryson (A Short History of Everything) takes readers on a tour of his house, a rural English parsonage, and finds it crammed with 10,000 years of fascinating historical bric-a-brac. Each room becomes a starting point for a free-ranging discussion of rarely noticed but foundational aspects of social life. A visit to the kitchen prompts disquisitions on food adulteration and gluttony; a peek into the bedroom reveals nutty sex nostrums and the horrors of premodern surgery; in the study we find rats and locusts; a stop in the scullery illuminates the put-upon lives of servants. Bryson follows his inquisitiveness wherever it goes, from Darwinian evolution to the invention of the lawnmower, while savoring eccentric characters and untoward events (like Queen Elizabeth I's pilfering of a subject's silverware). There are many guilty pleasures, from Bryson's droll prose—"What really turned the Victorians to bathing, however, was the realization that it could be gloriously punishing"—to the many tantalizing glimpses behind closed doors at aristocratic English country houses. In demonstrating how everything we take for granted, from comfortable furniture to smoke-free air, went from unimaginable luxury to humdrum routine, Bryson shows us how odd and improbable our own lives really are.
Publishers Weekly

Popular nonfiction writer Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything), an American-born UK resident, uses his home—a former Victorian parsonage—to explore how the contents of the rooms—in both his and others' dwellings—are reflections of our history. Changes in how we cope with hygiene, sex, death, sleep, amusement, nutrition, and various manufacturing and service trades all leave legacies on the domestic front. Looking at so many aspects of quotidian culture, Bryson understandably risks leaving out some parts, unlike microstudies such as Mark Kurlansky's Salt. Concentrating on the last 150 years of industrial society, thus including those advances showcased at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the year his house was built), he often wanders back several centuries. The digressions can be overwhelming, especially as the chapters do not provide clear organization. A dedicated wordsmith writing in a colloquial style, Bryson evidently enjoys his musings and trusts that his public will do the same. Verdict: Readers might best use this anecdotally constructed book by dipping into, rather than methodically reading, it. Its eclectic, ambulatory arrangement will delight many but baffle others. Bryson fans will want to read it. With a bibliography listing print sources but no websites and no endnotes. —Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress
Library Journal

(Starred review.) [A] delightful stroll through the history of domestic life. Now living in a 19th-century church rectory in Norfolk, England, the author decided to learn about the ordinary things of life by exploring each room in his house.... In a sense, Bryson’s book is a history of “getting comfortable slowly".... Informative, readable and great fun.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for At Home:

1. This book is a series of loosely-connected essays about ... well, what has made life comfortable, indeed, habitable for all of us. What was your experience reading At Home—did you find the loose structure of the work enjoyable, or did find it disjointed and overly digressive? How did you read the book—sequentially, chapter by chapter...or did you "skip and dip," reading ones you felt might be interesting while skipping others?

2. What do you find most interesting in Bryson's historical accounts? What surprises you the most...or impresses you the most? Horrify you? Anything make you laugh?

3. Sometimes it seems as if historical events are inevitable, but Bryson seems to suggest otherwise. Talk about the ways in which coincidence has influcenced history.

4. Progress happens inspite of oursleves. Find examples in Bryson's book of those who resisted new ideas—and insisted that their traditional notions of how the world worked was the only correct way. (Hint: approaches to hygiene...)

5. Some have pointed out the lack of documentation for many of Bryson's claims. Does that bother you...or are footnotes unnecessary in a non-academic work like At Home?

6. Overall, what have you taken away from Bryson's book? Have you read other Bryson works...if so, how does this stack up?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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