Bill Bryson: King of Curiosity

Prolific author discusses living 'At Home'

Nov 9, 2010 at 2:06 pm

How did salt and pepper become our default, go-to spices? Why are there four tines on a fork? How did stairs become so ubiquitous?

These are just a few of the curiosities explored in Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which uses the floor plan of the author’s own house — an Anglican rectory in Norfolk, England, built in 1851 — as a springboard to investigate the evolution of how we live today. Bursting with fascinating, often little-known facts and anecdotes, At Home gives a chapter to each room in the sprawling, Victorian residence, each an endless Pandora’s box of possibility and wonder.

And who better to guide us through the history of the “modern” home than Bryson, an entertaining, wit-fueled writer who has lent his unique perspective to a broad array of topics over the years — from travel books about hiking the Appalachian Trail and the mysteries of Australia to science-driven texts about “nearly everything” and various books about language and our use of it.

CityBeat recently phoned Bryson, a native Iowan who has lived most of his adult life in England, to discuss his latest literary endeavor in anticipation of his visit to Cincinnati Saturday for the Mercantile Library’s annual Niehoff Lecture.

CityBeat: Can you talk about how you came up with the idea for At Home, which seems both obvious and ingenious?

Bill Bryson: We had just moved back to England — we had been living in New Hampshire for eight years — and I was kicking around ideas for books. The previous book I’d done was A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which I tried to understand the universe and how it was created — everything from the Big Bang to today. And I thought, “Well, what does that leave? That kind of covers everything. What else can I do a book about?” And then I thought, “What if I treat our house as a kind of universe in its own right?” I started looking around my house and thinking, “There’s an awful lot of stuff here I don’t know anything about. I don’t know the stories behind them.

CB: There are an incredible amount of facts and anecdotes in the book. How did you draw the line about what to include and what to leave out?

BB: That was the hardest part of the book, much harder than any book I’ve ever done. Very often with books it’s about trying to find enough stuff to fill it out, and with this one it was exactly the opposite. There were so many directions I could go with every chapter. Deciding what not to include was the hardest part.

If you just think of something like the kitchen and the history of cooking ... obviously that is an enormous subject area and I could have gone all over the place. One of the things I did was cut back my early ambitions and didn’t do a whole history of humanity in those rooms but really looking at the last 150 years or so, and particularly the period between 1850 and 1900 when the modern world really developed.

CB: You clearly had to do a lot of research.

BB: It’s the most fun thing about writing for me. It really is. It’s the one part I really, really enjoy. The thing that makes me most excited in life, work-wise, is that the writing of that book is done and I can now start thinking about what else I might like to research. So the next few years of my life, researching my next book, will be the fun part. The hard part for me is the writing of it and making it all fit together and trying to make it all make sense.

CB: Where does your boundless curiosity come from?

BB: I don’t know really. I don’t feel as if it’s any different from anybody else’s; it’s more that I’ve learned to make a living from it. It seems to me that we all have the same experience. When you go home and watch TV tonight or read a book or read a magazine or newspaper, you’re bound to come across something where you think, “Wow, that’s so interesting.” And your immediate response is that you’ll want to share it with somebody — go to your grandmother or your girlfriend or whoever is there. I think that’s just a normal human emotion — to be amazed by the things we learn and want to share that with other people. And that’s all I do in my books.

BILL BRYSON speaks as part of the Mercantile Library’s annual Niehoff Lecture at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel downtown. The event is one of the library's main annual fundraisers. Buy tickets and get venue details here.