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Publisher's Summary

From one of the most beloved authors of our time—more than six million copies of his books have been sold in this country alone - a fascinating excursion into the history behind the place we call home.

“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.

©2010 Bill Bryson (P)2010 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"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)

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Far from his best

I am a big fan of Bill Bryson. His writing has caused me to laugh out loud in inappropriate situations time and time again. All his travel books are absolutely amazing and I recommend them to anyone. I also liked his short history of nearly everything, which provides an enjoyable introduction to science history, albeit not as funny as his travel books.

At Home sounded like it would be a book both funny and educational at the same time. In addition I feel that there is a bias in my historical knowledge towards war and despair and I hoped that this book might remedy that.

So maybe my disappointment with this book, in part, stems from my high expectations. While I did indeed learn quite a lot about things that you don't get from traditional history books, the book seemed rather disorganized, which was frustrating. In addition only rarely did Bryon flex his fantastic humor. Why Bill? It is like having Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio in a movie wearing Burkas...

Right at the start of the book Bill rightly points out that history generally ignores all the things we do most of the time such as eating, sleeping, socializing, having sex, etc. With this introduction, Bill goes on to tell the story of the Paxton's Crystal Palace and the great exhibition for which it was built. The great exhibition is a good starting point because so many new inventions, which changed our lives but rarely makes it to the history books, were shown there for the first time.

Bryson then takes us on a 700 page tour of a house, with each room leading to different histories. For instance, you will hear about the construction of the Eifel tower, a completely useless construction, which still was deemed a better project than another proposition - a 70m high guillotine. We learn about Magellan's voyage across the pacific where his crew (those few that survived) ate rat droppings and sawdust. We learn that burial grounds were lacking and that corpses were more or less piled on top of each other. The place where the national gallery stands, 70.000 bodies are estimated to have been buried.

Yet another fascinating story is the one about lighting and how people used to walk streets in complete darkness which was convenient for criminals but not for ordinary persons. Then came the time of the oil lamps which caused innumerable fires as well as wide spread whale deaths. At last electricity was discovered and the light bulb was invented, with one light bulb providing lighting equivalent to numerous candles. What fantastic progress! I think it is difficult to imagine what life must have been like before. Of course there were the all to common anti-progress people who said that electricity was dangerous and would spell our surmise, when Edison assistant accidentally electrocuted himself they became even surer of them selves. One does not have to look far to find comparative situations today.

Bryson will provide the reader with many more snippets of interesting information, which may come in handy at the next cocktail party, here are a few of my favorites…

• In the past chairs were always placed up against the wall (to avoid tripping over them in the dark) and therefore chair manufacturer did not paint the back of chairs.
• Peppercorn is actually a dried wine, which used to be an immensely valuable commodity.
• Mice can squeeze through 10mm cracks and are everywhere humans are
• Rats do enter houses via the toilet
• Before the invention of synthetic fertilizer, bird droppings were the favored product, and Peru’s export largely consisted of bird sh*t.
• George Washington determined the location of Washington DC – near his plantation
• Approximately 300.000 people in the UK are seriously injured from falling in the stairs each year.
• Selling corpses to anatomists used to be a lucrative business
• Smallpox used to kill 400.000 individuals each year before a vaccine was made
• Queen Anne was so fat she had to be lifted out of Windsor castle using a crane

This list could of course be much longer, and if you decide to read the book you will get a lot of this. However, as already hinted at I think that the book lack a structure or a thread which is easily followed. The connection between the room that a chapter is focused on and what Bill writes about is sometimes… elusive

One of the things I found a bit disappointing was that the book is very centered on the UK and US, which I suppose I should have expected, but I really would like to know more about the everyday life of people in different cultures.

All in all, while this book may be a hit for some people it is not one that I would recommend to my friend. Rather go for one of Bill Bryson’s other books, which are frequently unforgettable.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Jillian
  • Massillon, OH, United States
  • 12-17-10

A brief history of nearly everything part II

If you are looking for the combination of somber considration, excellent autobiographical story telling, and hilarious hijinks that you found in "A Walk in the Woods" and "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," look elsewhere. If you love to learn about the origins of everyday objects and processes, and you prefer to do it with a tongue-in-cheek guide, this is the book for you.

I should also note that this unabridged production is read by the author. Considering he has opted to read abridged versions of his longer books in the past, he (or one of the people he pays to think about such things) must have realized folks like me love his voice, his distinctive "anglo-Iowan twang," and the perfect timing and inflection he brings to his readings. I wouldn't have bought the audio book if it were read by anyone else.

I don't believe that this is Mr. Bryson's best work, but that doesn't mean it isn't better than any other book of the type I've ever read. I will be listening to it again.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Informative & easy-going

"At Home" is more informative than fun, but not at all in a bad way. It is at times a bit contrived, more like a loosely-held collection of dispatches about this and that - but it is never less than entertaining. I ran to it, drove to it, walked to it and it never failed to keep me tuned in. Five out of five, for sure.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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His least impressive book

The research was sloppy.

There are 2 places in this book where he states, "No one knows what this is" and "No one knows how this was done. But those statements aren't true. My mother told me the answer to one and I already knew the answer to the other. (The third shaker in a cruet set is for sugar and Victorian women wore drawers that no closing seam; they didn't have to "drop trou" in order to attend to necessary business. That's why the can-can was so outrageous. Not because of showing petticoats.}

Granted, in the beginning of the book Bryson states that he intended to write it in his slippers without leaving home. There appears to be no doubt that is what he did. But, a little internet searching should have answered those questions for him without a great deal of effort.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

A lovely trip through fascinating material

Bryson's wry wit (and soft, deadpan delivery) make a for a great listen. Fascinating information culled from the most mundane topics.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Karen
  • Rumford, RI, United States
  • 03-21-11

Material deserves better narration

I have long been a fan of Bryson's writing, so my problem isn't so much with his material as it is with his narration. I know that he grew up in Iowa but lived abroad for many years, so maybe that explains the somewhat odd accent he has, as well as the British pronunciations of certain words. But what really frustrated me was his inability to pronounce "ing" at the end of a word--burning became "burneen," building became "buildeen," etc. I didn't dislike the book--and I certainly won't give up on Bryson as a writer because he can be delightful--but I wish that I'd read this one in its print version because Bryson's narration really started to grate on me.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Fascinating

If you're a trivia fan, you'll love this. Not as much fun as his other books (lacks the humor of "A Walk in the Woods"), but full of great factoids. He wanders a bit and gets off track a lot, but always manages to tie it back together again. Sometimes a bit dry though.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Not what I expected

Having read a few other Bill Bryson books, I was expecting a bit more entertainment than this book provided. Bryson and his family live in a rectory in England that was built in the mid-1800s. In the book he uses the rooms of rectory as jumping off points to discuss the history of personal family dwellings to some extent, but winds up on long, often rambling histories of Victorian England for the most part. For example the nursery leads to a discussion of child rearing in general and how Victorians treated their children in particular. The bathroom eventually lead to discussion of cholera epidemics. The kitchen somehow leads to locust plagues which struck midwestern USA in the 1870s. Much of the book is interesting, but it sometimes gets a bit too loose for my taste. Add to that the fact that the book is read by Bill Bryson, who isn't all that exciting as a reader, and the book comes up as just average in my opinion.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Held my interest

The author did a decent job of holding my interest with the content of the book. Be aware that the book is basically a collection of trivia, related (sometimes tenuously) to various rooms in the home. So if you like historical trivia you'll probably like this. For content, I would have probably gone to 4 stars but the author's narration didn't work that well for me. He read a little bit fast at times and does not always enunciate very clearly, so I suspect some people might have to rewind this one a lot. Also, his accent and voice are of the sort people are apt to either love or hate. So listen to the preview first.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Delicia
  • Kingwood, TX, United States
  • 11-23-10

So many things to like here.

Bryson is one of my my favorites and this book did not dissapoint. It is filled with many interesting facts and stories using the rooms in his home as a sort of plot device for this study of the Western history of habitation. I Highly recommend it to anyone that enjoys learning history from exhibits at good history museum like I do.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful