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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.