A house is more than just four walls. It’s a window to a history everyone relates to: how domestic life has changed over the centuries. In “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” ($16, Doubleday), Bill Bryon’s 15th book, the American-turned-Brit author uses his 160-year-old abode as a backdrop to explore how evolving lifestyles have influenced the structures we call home. Bryson talks about the history of domestic bliss Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
I thought, “What if I just did a book about a house, and treated the house as a continent, making a journey around it, from room to room, considering the history of the world from that perspective?”
You live in a Victorian parsonage, which seems an ideal place to explore.
The clergyman who built this house in 1851 had grown up in a world that was, for nearly a century, fundamentally medieval. He lived until the early 20th century, so he died in a world that had cars, airplanes, skyscrapers and movies. Changes in those 50 years were probably greater than has ever happened in any inkling of human history.
What surprised you most about the history of homes?
How long it took us as beings to get comfortable, because it’s just the most natural thing in the world. For most of time, most people were not very good at making themselves comfortable. Their houses were drafty, cold and appallingly ill-lit. It’s only in the last 100 years or so that the idea of all of this comfort at our disposal has come.
So as the world changes, so do houses?
Most of the mechanics of living in the house haven’t changed. No matter how much lifestyles change, how much technology takes us into new places, we’re conservative about our houses. A doorknob has not changed in hundreds of years, and windows open the same way they did 250 years ago.
So how are houses going to change in upcoming years?
There will be change in terms of flat-screen televisions, entertainment systems and communications systems, but I imagine they will all be incorporated into a house that would be fundamentally the same as houses that we live in now.
OK, you can live in the White House, Monticello or Mount Vernon — which would you take?
Monticello is the greatest house ever built. The fact that it’s on a hilltop at a time when nobody built houses on hilltops, Thomas Jefferson was unique in that. What a visionary to think to have a view when you step out of French windows! But Mount Vernon is one of the most comfortable houses ever. Two of the best houses in America were built by presidents in their spare time. That’s amazing!