The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019) by Bill Bryson

Please note: I am a big fan of Bill Bryson as a writer, I eat up basically anything he writes. So I’m perhaps a little to predisposed to like this.

I had to take biology in high school because it was a mandatory part of the curriculum where I lived at the time. I hated the subject and I remember very little from that class except for the infamous “bell ringer” and a very public humiliation which I will not go into in this review. I think I hated for a couple of reasons: One of which was that I had zero interest in how the human body worked, as I was busy with other things. The other of which was the way it was taught – I don’t know if biology is more engaging now but back then it was a lot of rote memorization, which is, um, dull, to it mildly. If the body is full of mysteries, as Bryson says, there was no mystery in my biology class.

I regret not learning more about the hard sciences in school. Back then I knew more about biology and chemistry than physics because I never took physics. (Facepalm.) But I didn’t retain much, especially after the classes ended. The regrets were pretty strong a few years ago, as I began to feel as though a basic science education was necessary for me if I was going to continue to write about philosophy and politics and whatever else I wanted to write about. So I gave Crash Course a try and retained a lot about physics but not much (not enough) about biology and chemistry. (That’s because now I find physics fascinating, not so much the other hard sciences.)
So the first thing Bryson’s book does for me is that it gives me an accessible survey of human biology that I don’t find boring. This may be the first time in my life I have been intrigued by the entire biology of the human, rather than just the mind, for the span of entire book (or course or what have you). Bryson makes the wonder of humanity truly wondrous, but also fascinating, mysterious and funny, all ingredients that were not present in my grade 10 biology class.

I like Bryson’s popular science books in part because they almost feel like travel books for science; it’s clear he’s not an expert, he’s just visiting, but while he’s there he learned lots and and made lots of amusing observations and asides. I realize that, for experts, this book might do a great disservice to one field or another. One thing I can say about it is that, though it is nearly 400 pages long, it still feels rather cursory. It’s almost as if he could have written multiple books about the body (one on the mind, etc) and then written another book about medicine and disease. It’s weird to enjoy a book this much but also feel left this wanting on the information front. The nature of the beast is that a popular science book cannot be 700 pages, but it does feel like this could have easily been that long.

Still, as an enjoyable introduction for someone like me, who knows very little about the physical body outside of really basic stuff, it did exactly what I wanted: it entertained me while it educated me.


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