Bill Bryson isn’t a medic, biologist or psychiatrist, but that’s what makes his exploration of the human body, all seven billion billion billion atoms of it (the book is rich in jaw-dropping stats), so readable and useful. As with his earlier A Short History of Nearly Everything, which offers a non-specialist introduction to science, he asks all the questions a layperson doesn’t dare to ask for fear of exposing humiliating ignorance, then answers them in witty, jargon-free prose that glides you through 400 pages.
It is no mean feat to capture the essence of the human body and the history of medicine and modern clinical practice in a single volume, but Bryson manages it phenomenally well. His approach is to dazzle with fascinating data, and to flesh out the lives of pioneers — often with gossip about their irascibility, tax-dodging or the hijacking of their discoveries by colleagues — following this by interviewing an expert practising in the same field today. It must have been a time-consuming endeavour, but he retains his humour and awe throughout, and his enthusiasm is infectious... overall, this book is a delight. Bryson has missed a vocation as a charismatic teacher — but teaching’s loss is our gain.
One of the strengths of Bryson’s delightful new book, “The Body,” is that it reveals the thousands of rarely acknowledged tasks our body takes care of as we go about our day. We should be thankful. Well, mostly thankful. In some respects, the human body is terribly designed. It’s a collection of evolution’s Scotch-tape-and-bubble-gum fixes (see our injury-prone knees or the dangerously exposed scrotum). Plus, our bodies can and do go horribly awry, whether from tennis elbow or deadly infections... Bryson, who gives off a Cronkite-like trustworthy vibe, is good at allaying fears and busting myths. For instance, he says you don’t have to worry about MSG — there’s no science indicating that eating normal amounts of this synthetic umami causes headaches or malaise (though there is evidence people find it delicious). You can also stop obsessing about antioxidants. There’s little science behind the claim that you can increase your life span with antioxidant supplements (a $2- billion-a-year industry).
It mostly works. Bryson has a sharp eye for a weird fact — though, like the stereotypical Midwesterner, he is impressed by sheer size and scale. The 25 sextillion molecules of oxygen in every exhalation, the 8,000 diseases that can kill us, and so on. The numbers are often put in striking contexts, too. How about the five to 40 years it takes our bodies to decompose in a sealed coffin? The average grave is visited for 15 years, Bryson points out. We might linger alone for some time.
[Bryson] travels around asking doctors and medical researchers how the meat and chemicals of homo sapiens all hang together, and relays his findings with a smooth and raconteurish authority. The result is a comforting compendium of fascinating facts, a little like a grown-up version of some Usborne Amazing Book of the Body... The ideal reader of Bryson’s book is overweight, encased in a “warm wobble of flesh”, and really ought to do a bit more exercise. “You should get up and move around a little,” he advises the reader directly, which seems a little hectoring and ungrateful, considering his audience is very likely to be seated while enjoying the book. Since the text appears aimed at a mainly American audience, mind you, its assumption of readerly obesity and sloth is probably a good bet... The sources Bryson cites tend to be other popular compendia of facts about the body, magazine articles, or interviews with scientists, rather than scientific papers themselves, and the challenge for a generalist in synthesising so much information is knowing when he is being fed a pet line rather than reporting on a robust consensus... It is a feat, too, of narrative skill to bake so many facts into an entertaining and nutritious book, as Bryson sketches the history of lobotomies, phrenology and heart transplants, or scoots through some simple evolutionary theory.
Bryson’s The Body is a directory of such wonders, a tour of the minuscule; it aims to do for the human body what his A Short History of Nearly Everything did for science. 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...You are a walking, talking catalogue of wonders. “And how do we celebrate the glory of our existence?” Bryson asks. “Well, for most of us by exercising minimally and eating maximally.” For all Bryson’s encyclopedic reading, his brain-picking sessions with medicine’s finest minds, the ultimate conclusions of his book could stand as an ultimate prescription for life: eat a little bit less, move a little bit more.