Bookmarks Issue: 
Bill Bryson

A Short History of Private Life

A-At HomeAmerican by birth but British by disposition, Bill Bryson is the author of many works of nonfiction including memoirs, travel, and reference books.

The Topic: Bill Bryson took a cosmic perspective on our world in his last book on science, A Short History of Nearly Everything ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003), and his travel writing has taken him nearly everywhere. So perhaps the only thing left for him to do was stay indoors at home and focus on the domestic. That's the premise of his latest book, in which he uses the rooms and objects in his rambling Victorian rectory home in Norfolk, England, from the kitchen to the drawing room, as jumping off points to explore the past and present of everyday existence. In pursuing questions such as "Why salt and pepper?" and "Where did stairs come from?" Bryson uncovers unexpected answers as well as thousands of surprising facts and anecdotes.
Doubleday. 497 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 9780767919388

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"Reading Bryson is a perfect antidote to the disconnect we get after looking something up on the Web, popping from link to link. ... At the end of a Brysonian chain of unlikely links you feel informed, smarter--connected." Scott Huler

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Bryson makes the case--convincingly, compellingly and with his trademark blithe humor--that history ultimately lands at our doorstep. ... Bryson's gift lies in provoking thoughts on subjects that might be ignored but, in his unique worldview, take on new significance." Jim Anderson

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
" Although the sheer amount of information presented in this 452-page book is daunting, it doesn't overtax our intellect. Most of all, Bryson succeeds in making us realize how much we take our material comforts for granted, as well as the colossal effort it took to achieve this level of affluence." Bharti Kirchner

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While Bryson may not have done much original research, it takes a very particular kind of thoughtfulness, as well as a bold temperament, to stuff all this research into a mattress that's supportive enough to loll about on while pondering the real subject of this book--the development of the modern world." Dominique Browning

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Much of this world history turns out to be British history, and some of it will be unfamiliar to American readers. ... [If] there are times when reading it seems like opening an encyclopedia at random, well, opening encyclopedias at random can be a lot of fun." Geoff Nicholson

Spectator (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Bryson's] method is to amass a dazzling number of facts and findings from disparate sources to create a mosaic that adds up to something or nothing, but is nearly always riveting." Victoria Glendinning

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"At Home is not Bryson at his best. It often seems scattered, with numerous digressions into whatever happens to strike the author's fancy--and almost everything does." Bill Marvel

Globe and Mail 3 of 5 Stars
"Bryson has a preternatural ability to find the telling anecdote, the ironic twist on a story we thought we knew. ... What is missing is reflection on private life itself. It is indeed a comfortable book, but it has little to say about what all this seeking of comfort might mean." William Bryant Logan

Critical Summary

Many jaded book critics found a way to seem slightly bored by Bill Bryson's trademark digressive and anecdote-laden style, but as usual, all of them had to admit that there is something irresistibly intriguing and effortlessly entertaining about nearly everything he writes. A few found more substantive faults with At Home, though: several felt Bryson could have been a little more careful with his research, while others noted that despite the premise, there isn't really much on the history of private life here. It might be more accurate to say the book is about interesting things connected with Bryson's house. But the remarkable thing is the ease with which all reviewers of the book dismissed their own complaints and found themselves glad to follow Bryson's meanderings.