The body : a guide for occupants

by Bill Bryson

Hardcover, 2019




New York : Doubleday, 2019.


One of The Washington Post's 50 Most Notable Works of Nonfiction 2019 Bill Bryson, bestselling author of A Short History of Nearly Everything, takes us on a head-to-toe tour of the marvel that is the human body. As addictive as it is comprehensive, this is Bryson at his very best, a must-read owner's manual for everybody. Bill Bryson once again proves himself to be an incomparable companion as he guides us through the human body--how it functions, its remarkable ability to heal itself, and (unfortunately) the ways it can fail. Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and irresistible Bryson-esque anecdotes, The Body will lead you to a deeper understanding of the miracle that is life in general and you in particular. As Bill Bryson writes, "We pass our existence within this wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted." The Body will cure that indifference with generous doses of wondrous, compulsively readable facts and information.… (more)

Media reviews

"He has waded through a PhD’s worth of articles, interviewed a score of physicians and biologists, read a library of books, and had a great deal of fun along the way. There’s a formula at work – the prose motors gleefully along, a finely tuned engine running on jokes, factoids and biographical interludes."
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School biology teachers, rejoice. The students who filled your labs but paid only drowsy attention to long explanations of meiosis and mitosis are likely now lining up for Bill Bryson’s latest bound-to-be bestseller, The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Your message will finally get through – if not in detail then at least in substance.

Discussing respiration, for instance, Bryson writes that what we breathe in is 80 per cent nitrogen, which “goes into your lungs and straight back out again, like an absent-minded shopper who has wandered into the wrong store”.

This your former students will remember. This is why Bryson earns the big bucks.


At 450 pages, this is a healthily sized volume that is occasionally a little repetitious, and might have benefited from a visit to the surgeon for a little trim. Nevertheless, there are omissions, such as an absence of discussion of the body’s innumerable on-board parasites and the role they play, which is often beneficial.

Yet much time is spent telling us what we know we don’t know. “Your body is a universe of mystery,” says Bryson. Only 2 per cent of our DNA appears to do anything practical, and fully 10 per cent seems to be gibberish. No one knows why we yawn.

But what we do know is wonderful, and how we found it out equally so. Bryson often diverts into discussion of the lives of scientists involved in various breakthroughs. He is particularly keen to give recognition to researchers whose discoveries have improved the human condition but who have gone unfairly unrecognised.


At times Bryson’s language is philosophically floppy. A description of the marvellous complexity of the eye provides the opportunity for a swipe at the Victorians for holding it up as an example of intelligent design. “It was an odd choice because the eye is really rather the reverse – literally so, for it is built back to front.” Yet he frequently discusses the “design” of other organs before reaching a discussion of childbirth in which he confronts the issue straight on.

“If ever there was an event that challenges the concept of intelligent design, it is the act of childbirth. No woman, however devout, has ever in childbirth said, ‘Thank you, Lord, for thinking this through for me.’”

Without Bryson’s existing reputation, it’s unclear whether this book would sell particularly well. He’s a master commu­nicator, but there’s a slightly plodding progress from one topic to another, and those hoping to be more than slightly tickled by the humour would do well to look elsewhere.

But just as he once did on the byways and back roads of Australia, the US and the UK, Bryson takes the reader on a little trip, not claiming the inside knowledge of most guides, but knowledge of the insides.

User reviews

LibraryThing member dypaloh
In The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Bill Bryson does for the science of our bodies what he did for general science in his immensely popular A Short History of Nearly Everything. He takes on the information that’s possible to report and somehow tells us virtually nothing but stuff that’s interesting and often surpassingly odd. He is a great companion for a long road (or reading) trip.

One reason I like Bryson is how often he fixes on those things about which “No one has any idea why.” He also has a talent for finding eccentric scientists. His best stuff could be said to be illustrations of eccentric phenomena and eccentric phenomenal people.

You might finish the book thinking that not only is medicine often more art than science, it’s also an art designed to drill out of the U.S. economy the maximum income possible. But the best result from reading it is not resentment about practices influencing medical or insurer profits, as interesting and bothersome as those are. The best result is to appreciate more deeply what an astonishing construction our body is. Best appreciate it while we have it. Bryson helps us do just that.
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LibraryThing member jillrhudy
I received an advance readers copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Bill Bryson’s “The Body” is a sprightly and vastly entertaining work of popular science, so much fun to read that I can’t imagine anyone except Bryson pulling it off. It’s also a staggering research work, with more than 350 endnotes and dozens of professional consultants in multiple countries. “The Body: A Guide for Occupants” is difficult for a curious reader to progress through at anything approaching a decent clip because every paragraph invites further study.

While reading it, I researched further on brain death, breast milk, digestion, smallpox and at least a dozen other subjects. I also looked up several historical figures whose profiles appear in the book due to their (often overlooked) contributions to science. I was stunned at the number of misconceptions I hold about this body that I inhabit and how to care for it, and also marveled at the problems plaguing humanity which I thought that medical science had partially or entirely solved, about which doctors are still more or less clueless. I ended up in possession of my first issue of Scientific American to read articles on early puberty and female reproductive medicine.

I expect that experts will find plenty to quibble with considering the broad range of subjects, but Bryson isn’t trying to write the definitive work on any biological or anatomical subject area. However, between this book and Googling reliable sources, the lay reader will get a good overview of biology and related subjects such as immunology and nutrition. I plan to purchase it for handy personal reference—how else to mark it up and stuff it full of additional citations, and work back and forth between chapters and endnotes? I understand Bryson is the narrator of the audiobook as well. Irresistible.

I finished the book with a sense of awe and gratitude just to be alive and inhabiting such an amazing vehicle. Then I walked a couple of miles.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
This took me a long time to read, not because it was boring but because there was so much information, it was slow reading. I’m sure I have forgotten more than I have remembered, but I know a lot more than I did before. Bryson is able to take a very technical subject and write for the layman.
LibraryThing member DrApple
This is informative, but it seemed to lack a great deal of Bryson's legendary humor.
LibraryThing member JennyNau10
My first Bryson book was A Walk in the Woods. It was hilarious, all the while sneaking in some education. I went to read almost everything he has in print. So when I saw this title on my ARC list, I was pretty excited, even though human anatomy might be my least favorite subject.
I could hold my own now if I needed to critique a television medical drama from the knowledge I gained in reading this ginormous 400-page tome of humanness. It's a partial history of science and part straight-up anatomy.
It's the owner's manual that no one has thought to hand out. Only this isn't some hard to understand volume; it's in plain English. I didn't take Anatomy at school and the only text I've encountered while homeschooling was nowhere near as readable as this is. If you are a science geek, you'll devour this. If you are a Bryson fan, he'll drag you into being interested, and if you wanted to use this as a high school science text, I'd support you. I'm probably going to make it required reading at our house.
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LibraryThing member knightlight777
The worst thing about Bill Bryson's books is that they end. No exception here. Many of us have probably read books surveying the descriptions and function of the human body, Bryson makes it an adventure. His writing style and manner is captivating here as usual.

He takes us through the major and minor parts and processes. Covering a lot of history, discovery, and mystery we still grapple with. We are all in this thing together and will not get out alive as it has been said. And we can certainly share the ride with fascination as Mr. Bryson guides the journey with his typical mastery.… (more)
LibraryThing member jpsnow
Bryson excels at highlighting the most interesting, thought provoking activities happening inside us. While more professorial than some of his other books, The Body is still more humorous then erudite. Since finishing this book a week ago, I've found myself sharing some of the facts with others, not to mention thinking repeatedly about the whole world of microorganisms living on us and in us.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookwyrmm
Fascinating anatomy/medical lesson for the lay person, but not for the squeamish.
LibraryThing member bookworm12
For me, Bryson can take any subject and make it interesting. His dry sense of humor is on every page as he walks us through the way the human body works. There was so much I didn’t know! From dangerous diseases that have been eradicated to medical practices that are horrific, we learn both the history and the abilities of our bodies.

“Just sitting quietly, doing nothing at all, your brain churns through more information in thirty seconds than the Hubble Space Telescope has processed in thirty years.”

“An analysis of 655,000 people in 2012 found that being active for just eleven minutes a day after the age of forty yielded 1.8 years of added life expectancy. Being active for an hour or more a day improved life expectancy by 4.2 years.”
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LibraryThing member revchrishemyock
Utterly Brilliant. Unbelievably comprehensive and fascinating. Taught me more about the body in a few days than in my whole previous lifetime
LibraryThing member yukon92
I learnt a lot about the body, which we all "occupy", as the author puts it. As is typical with his books Mr. Bryson goes very deep into explaining things.
LibraryThing member datrappert
As in his A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson is superb at explaining complicated things in a clear, easy to read manner. When appropriate, he uses humor, which, as I came to realize, in Bryson's case is never forced. Perhaps that is why as the book comes to its final chapters, which primarily involve disease and death, there is not much humor. Most of the doctors and scientists Bryson interviews and quotes from are working in Britain, interestingly enough, although there a good number from the United States. As Bryson shows in the final chapters, the USA is not exactly leading the world in healthcare--or certainly not in results, at least--with higher incidences of infant mortality, death in childbirth, and a shorter overall lifespan for men and women than in Britain, Sweden, or other European countries, but also than in some much poorer places such as Costa Rica. This book is perhaps most interesting when explaining parts of the body and telling anecdotal stories about the men and women who made great discoveries, and how they were often cheated out of their recognition or generally forgotten. Kudos to Bryson for resurrecting some of them. A few things will stick with you for a long time, such as the description of how lobotomies were performed by one frequent practitioner. The book would benefit from a deluxe illustrated version such as A Short History of Nearly Everything received. Still, it is a compulsive, page-turner of a book, that you may finish in a single day if you start early enough.… (more)
LibraryThing member VoodooYeager
I will never look at my body the same way again. There are.....things....that I never needed to know more about when it came to illnesses, injuries, and general questions about my body. Why couldn't this be my anatomy and physiology textbook?
LibraryThing member Faradaydon
Bill Bryson at his brilliant best!
LibraryThing member paulmorriss
If you like trivia, then this is full of fascinating facts, some of which will go against what you may have heard before (e.g. the tongue has distinct areas for tasting salt, say).
LibraryThing member SonoranDreamer
Generally, this book was interesting, but I wished he had got a second opinion about women's experiences. I was unhappy with the way the book focused on the negative about female bodies. I got the impression that a woman's life was full of pain and risk. If I didn't know better, this book would make me feel scared about being a woman, and if I was a girl hearing this, I'd be terrified to grow up. Giving birth and having breasts doesn't mean the end of joy. Giving birth is more of a miracle that ends in great joy and is worth the pain. I didn't like the way he focused on women's pain when discussing our body. It was obvious that he didn't talk to women before writing about our bodies, or if he did, he only talked to one or two.… (more)
LibraryThing member labdaddy4
An excellent and enjoyable read - Bryson always seems to have a “twinkle in his eye” regardless of his subject. I consider myself well informed about the human body and how it works - or dosen’t - but there was much of this book content that was enlightening.
LibraryThing member drmaf
I must admit I'm not a huge fan of Bryson's travel books, but I have loved his books on language, and this is another in the same ilk. A compendium of facts about the human body from top to toe bound together with his deft and humorous prose and liberally laced with factoids and anecdotes about the human condition. He specializes in uncovering medical pioneers who made great breakthroughs but were either ignored or forgotten and there are literally dozens of these. Its a book that is very difficult to put down once you start, and regardless of how much you think you know about your body, you will discover things that you hadn't the earthliest knowledge of. Fantastic read.… (more)
LibraryThing member addunn3
All the information you will ever want to know about your body. Bryson at his very best.
LibraryThing member arewenotben
Typical breezy Bryson, giving you everything you want and more on the workings of the body. Far far more information than you'd ever be able to take in but filled with countless interesting factoids and histories. Scary how many medical advances were just from people throwing caution to the wind and giving something a go - yeah, inject sheeps blood into that bloke, why not?… (more)
LibraryThing member zasmine
This was my first Bill Bryson. A tad bit old fashioned - I don't believe in the kind of knowledge you acquire by reading a book titled 'A short history of nearly everything'.
The pursuit of knowledge is a slow, carefully curated process. Yet, something about the title of this book 'A guide for occupants' was appealing. Having had limited formal education in Biology and tons of work experience (and of course, life experience) with it- I liked how the title seems to indicate, we are mere occupants of this beauty, and this book is merely a guide.

There are a ton of reviews that try to even more ‘shorten’ the information in these 400 pages and offer some of the most popular shocking snippets from the book. If the reader is looking for one, I recommend this one from The Guardian.

But most of all, I recommend the book. The hyperbole may tax you for a bit in the beginning, but in awhile, the reader would admire Bryson’s passion was built on the able shoulders of very decent research. His description of the ‘cosmic sense’ of ourselves comes from a deep admiration of the many unknowns, knowns and discoveries about our bodies. The book is arranged into perfectly sized chapters carefully dedicated to parts of our body, body functions stringed together through birth and death. Chapters begin with brief quotes below mostly uninspiring little illustrations. The collection of these quotes is quite telling about the authors personal – lots of Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare- perhaps also testimony to his American- British life. Each chapter contains in equal parts contemporaneous knowledge of what we believe today richly coupled with how (more often than not via a painful share of human experiments) we reached this understanding, what still remains to be explored and gives credits to some forgotten heroes through this journey. And just in case the text starts seeming any less believable, in case the stories of lobotomy and mastectomy dull away as you read them, there’s a good collection of photographs in the book to remind you of how recent, painful and arduous this journey of knowledge has been.

Of course, the Chapter ‘Medicine- Good and Bad’ I recommend to anyone working in the Pharmaceutical Industry. It is humbling to read through what medical science has administered, prescribed as safe and efficacious and how egregious some of these solutions look today. One of the pharmaceutical industry’s poster ‘bad-kids’ Purdue Pharma isn’t spared Bryson’s rod. Bryson is pretty fair though- he heartily acknowledges the industry’s role in the containment of infectious diseases child mortality (in combination with improved life conditions) and cancer survival rates. He skimps through understanding the healthcare industry’s construct. There are some interesting links to a gentleman named Thomas McKeown’s work which I will go read up on more. The chapter ends with the line ‘In short, everyday attributes like empathy and common sense can be just as important as the most technologically sophisticated equipment’. Even without the specific context around this line- it’s great advise for our industry.

‘A successful virus is one that doesn’t kill to well and can circulate widely’- and the current champion of this fame makes any reading of this book in 2020 impossible without pondering yet again about how the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t just science fiction come live. My book had a brief afterword from the writer from April 2020. Let’s hope next prints of this book continue to marvel at our rich ecosystems of bodies and lessons we learnt and implemented in their preservation.
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LibraryThing member DanDiercks
A remarkable book for its information and for the method with which Bill Bryson presents it. Much of the information he discusses is anything but funny; however, Bryson has a talent for making anatomical facts both interesting and thought provoking. He mixes historical anecdotes which enhance the information and make the reading easier than an anatomy textbook. This is the third Bryson book I’ve read, and I never cease to be amazed by the breadth of talent he possesses. On top of that, he’s a really good writer.… (more)
LibraryThing member SGTCat
If I'd read this as 13 y/o I would be a doctor right now I think. It really piqued my interest in human physiology and illnesses.
LibraryThing member bergs47
I really choose the wrong time to read this book. Its not the best read in the midst of the epidemic. I think I now have 278 viruses that I never knew I had before. Scary , oh so scary.
LibraryThing member mlhershey
Fascinating and entertaining. A great book to listen to!



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