Bill Bryson Tackles Human Biology in ‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’

The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Image: Doubleday
The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Image: Doubleday

When I learned that the latest subject tackled by Bill Bryson would be the human body in a new book titled The Body: A Guide for Occupants, I was thrilled. Bryson has long been one of my favorite authors. I own his entire and extensive (his first book was published in 1989) works and had to ban myself from reading them in bed due to an unfortunate habit of waking up my husband by shaking the bed trying to contain my laughter—reading in public went out of the door years ago! My favorite Bryson book so far has been his other science volume, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which convinced me to study physics at university, and I immediately hoped for something equally as thorough and well-researched covering this more intimate topic.

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Quote from The Body Regarding the Brain, Image: Sophie Brown
Quote from The Body Regarding the Brain, Image: Sophie Brown

The Body: A Guide for Occupants is a detailed and thorough exploration of the one thing all of us have in common, yet it is written, as with all Bryson’s books, in such a way as to be completely accessible to the average person on the street with no prior knowledge required. Over 23 chapters, the book covers every system and part of the body from the skeleton to the skin, the brain to the blood, and even “Into the Nether Regions,” as one chapter is imaginatively titled. There’s also a look at the process from conception to birth that strips away all of the politics associated with the subject and leaves behind a clear and concise discussion about the science.

As with all his books, the research is second-to-none. Bryson has spent months visiting universities and hospitals in order to pepper doctors and researchers with questions. Some of the most interesting tidbits in the book come from his visit to the dissecting room at the University of Nottingham Medical School in England, a visit that many of us would, no doubt, find hard to stomach but which provides valuable and fascinating insight for this book.

Unlike most of Bryson’s previous books, however, this one is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, I found myself surprised at how infrequently I found myself even smiling while reading The Body compared to his earlier books. This, I suppose, is largely down to the subject matter. While the human body offers a near-boundless scope for entertainment, it is impossible to discuss how it works in any detail without veering into the subject of what happens when it doesn’t. Disease and injury stalk through every chapter of this book as examples of what happens when those bodily systems we’re discussing fail and rarely do these passages make for easy reading.

A Quote About Klüver-Bucy Syndrome, Image: Sophie Brown
A Quote about Klüver-Bucy Syndrome, Image: Sophie Brown

Naturally, this is a subject area that needs to be handled with sensitivity, as does the topic of how we came by our knowledge of human anatomy, which often makes for even more difficult reading. It would be impossible to tolerate Bryson’s usual brand of droll humor when discussing topics such as the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 or the horrific experiments forced upon Holocaust victims during the Second World War, and so he steers well clear, making only the occasional amusing anecdote about a name or interesting fact. This lack of humor to ease the tougher subject matter means that The Body is much harder to digest than most of Bryson’s previous books, even if it is just as interesting and well-written.

The Body hasn’t become my new favorite Bill Bryson book, but it’s still up there in the top half of the field, and with an author like him where even his weaker efforts rank among my favorite books of all time, you really can’t go wrong. This will make an excellent gift this holiday season for anyone interested in popular science, understanding the human body, or anyone who simply enjoys well-written non-fiction.

Before I finish up, I want to leave you with my list of the top ten Bill Bryson books so far:

  1. A Short History of Nearly Everything (A detailed look at the history of science and scientific discovery.)
  2. Notes From a Big Country, AKA I’m a Stranger Here Myself (A collection of Bryson’s newspaper columns chronicling his experiences moving back the US after living in the UK for two decades.)
  3. The Lost Continent (Bryson travels through 38 states in the hopes of finding small-town America.)
  4. Notes From a Small Island (Bryson’s first book, all about his first visit to the UK as a young man—read my review on GeekMom.)
  5. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (A memoir about growing in 1950s America.)
  6. Down Under, AKA In a Sunburned Country (Bryson explores Australia.)
  7. Made in America (A guide to the evolution of the English language in the United States.)
  8. A Walk in the Woods* (Bryson attempts to hike the Appalachian Trail.)
  9. The Body: A Guide for Occupants (A guide to human anatomy.)
  10. Neither Here nor There (Bryson retraces his 1970s backpacking trip across Europe twenty years later.)

*A Walk in the Woods was made into a film starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson—a film I really need to find the time to watch.

GeekMom received a copy of this book for review purposes.

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