Like many readers, I very much enjoy Bill Bryson’s non-fiction work. I picked up his newest publication, The Body: A Guide for Occupants having not read any of his writing for such a long time, and was so pleased that I did. I was reminded once more of how warm his prose is, and how fascinating his subjects.
Many of Bryson’s books are essentially travel writing, in which he writes about countries and regions which he has lived or travelled within – the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa are just three examples. The Body is something a little different to these personal geographies, though. It is far more science-based than much of his work, and does not include many personal stories, something which his books tend to be built upon. It looks inward, trying to decipher what really makes a human being.
The Body has been split into many chapters, each of which focuses upon a distinctive part of the human body. These range from ‘The Immune System’ and ‘The Brain’ to ‘Into the Nether Regions’. These chapters are incredibly thorough; there is not an element of the body which has not been explored in some way. He moves seamlessly from one topic to another. With his chapter on the skin, for instance, he moves from bacteria found on the skin to the phenomenon of itching, and then the reasons as to why we lose hair as we age, all in less than two pages.
Bryson writes about so many things here, including the beginning of forensic science; microbes and proteins, and their functions and uses within the body; viruses; advances in medicine; evolutionary changes within human anatomy; how different parts of us age, and the consequences felt; the myriad benefits of exercise; and the wonder found within the structure of our bones. He writes about so many things that are known about the human body, and also the surprising number of elements which remain a mystery. Bryson introduces several medical conundrums, interesting cases which cannot be solved.
Bryson has chosen to begin The Body with rather a fascinating chapter, entitled ‘How to Build a Human’, which calculates how expensive it would be to procure all of the elements which make up the human body – clue: a lot. This memorable prologue, as it were, sets the tone for the book, and feels perfectly placed.
As ever, Bryson’s writing in The Body is both absorbing and accessible. He grapples with complex ideas throughout the book, but presents everything in a way which can be read and understood by newcomers to this subject. He introduces myriad facts in marvellous ways, which really make one think; for instance, ‘In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.’ One can see from the outset that Bryson clearly has quite a passion for this subject, and this shines throughout, as does his humour. Throughout, Bryson consults experts in different fields, and also mentions a lot of books which focus upon biology along the way.
The Body is a book which one can learn, unsurprisingly, a great deal from. I have always been fascinated by biology and the human body, and have read a few books on the subject before, but I found myself learning new facts throughout. Although there is such a great deal packed into the pages of The Body, and a great deal of impeccable research has clearly been done, it never feels saturated with information, and can easily be read from cover to cover. The Body is, all in all, a fact-lover’s dream, which demonstrates how wonderful the human body is, in all of its strangeness.
I will end this review with a passage which I, personally, found fascinating: ‘The most remarkable part of all is your DNA. You have a metre of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single fine strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system. You are in the most literal sense cosmic.’