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Bill Bryson. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Bryson's guide to the human body

Writer Bill Bryson adds to his vast body of work with a work on the vastness of the body.

Bill Bryson’s tantalisingly named 2003 book A Short History of Nearly Everything (there was a “really short” version for young adults) sold the thick end of two million copies, a good lifetime’s work by any measure. But it was only one station on a quarter-century line of publications that has culminated in this, his 23rd.

Like the bestselling history book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants delivers what it promises on the cover in his trademark breezy and engaging writing style. He also shows his background as a subeditor by the clarity and precision of his narrative and a command of grammar and vocabulary that is distressingly rare in publishing these days.

As the title suggests, it’s aimed at the general reader, on whom he makes few demands, though the more inquisitive may be frustrated by the lack of curiosity (or plain wrongheadedness) that mars some observations. The assertion that “no one is sure how to account for” the difference in health status between rich and poor people whose diet, sleep and exercise regimes are identical would be unlikely to survive a 10-minute discussion with any social science undergraduate. And a passage that deals with reaction times – the brain reacts not to what is happening now but to what it anticipates will happen about a fifth of a second in the future – cries out for a follow-up about why Muhammad Ali could get out of the way of a punch better than I could. It betrays, perhaps, that he is primarily an entertainer and that his journalistic (never mind scientific) rigour may have loosened a little with the years.

In this book, as in many of his others, Bryson’s approach is to assemble and make digestible a plethora of material already well known: that we blink 14,000 times a day (although numbers between 9600 and 30,000 are easily found online) or that we are made up of seven octillion (billion billion billion) atoms. Oddly, though, he devotes barely a paragraph to the teeth, the only part of the body that everybody is guaranteed to have trouble with, since dental caries is, by far, the commonest human ailment. Conversely, he does good service in exploding popular myths, such as that vitamin C wards off a cold (it doesn’t) and that we use only 10% of our brains (codswallop).

The Body takes a methodical approach to its subject, starting with the skin and hair and moving inwards to take in the vascular, digestive, skeletal, neurological and reproductive systems and explore the nature of disease. Bryson illustrates perfectly how nonsensically patronising, even insulting, the term “battling cancer” is, and he reminds us how many of the advances in medicine have been either serendipitous or fiercely opposed by scientists whose cosy certainties were threatened with disruption.

In the later pages, he strays from his subject matter a little, into the political economy of food and the failures of US healthcare, and the book is both poorer and longer than it ought to be as a result. But it’s a book you’ll find yourself laying aside, often, to ask anyone who will listen, “Did you know that …?”

THE BODY: A Guide for Occupants, by Bill Bryson (Penguin Random House, $55)

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.