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Bestselling author Bill Bryson never imagined that a trip to his attic to investigate a leak in the roof would lead to a mammoth four-year project.

The globe-trotting author, best known for his witty, informative travel books and his hugely successful science guide, A Short History Of Nearly Everything, found a secret door which led to a tiny rooftop space and prompted the thought that he knew little about his home or how people lived day-to-day through centuries.

Four years on, the resulting 483-page tome, At Home: A Short History Of Private Life, features the minutiae of people going about their daily business through the ages.

"Even Einstein will have spent large parts of his life thinking about his holidays or a new hammock or how dainty was the ankle on the young lady alighting from the tram across the street," Bryson reflects.

"I don't know how many hours of my school years were spent studying the Missouri Compromise or the War of the Roses, but it was vastly more than I was ever encouraged or allowed to give to the history of eating, sleeping, having sex or endeavouring to be amused."

As with so many of Bryson's books, his style, even to those not interested in history, is amusing and entertaining as he points out the quirky habits which have evolved in our lifestyles -- why we always put pepper with salt, why our forks have four tines, why men's jackets have pointless buttons on the sleeves.

But he also gives readers the bigger picture of how difficult life must have been in centuries gone by, without the staples we take for granted.

Opening a refrigerator door today, for instance, creates more light than an entire 18th-century house could produce. Each chapter features a different room and how it came to be, what it was used for and the associated lifestyles of people throughout history, from upper classes to slaves.

"It took more research than I expected," he says. "I was a year late with the book. I did nothing else for four years. When you start looking at the history of food, the history of cooking, the history of hygiene, they are big subjects. I should have stopped to think just what kind of a door I was opening."

He began the journey in his own house, a former Victorian rectory in Norfolk, wandering from room to room considering how ordinary things in life came to be.

From keeping food fresh to how people coped with lack of lighting in their houses, to bed mites, epidemics and exceedingly uncomfortable furniture, no stone is left unturned.

Bryson (58) was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of a sports writer. His mother was home furnishings editor at the local paper.

He frets about the energy we waste making ourselves more comfortable in our homes and the way the Western world takes its privileges for granted.

"Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a European, or every 28 hours by an American," he said.

"We live quite extravagant lifestyles, yet we haven't had to live with the consequences of that.

"The world is still green and lovely and attractive but there's a possibility it will stop being attractive as a direct consequence of the lifestyles that we've chosen to lead. We ought to be thinking about that."

At Home, by Bill Bryson, is published by Doubleday