Book Review – The Body, A Guide For Occupants: Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Many years ago I accidentally stumbled upon a book ‘Down Under’ in a library in a suburb of Sydney. Other than PG Wodehouse, I hadn’t come across a writer who managed to use humour in such an intelligent way. This was my introduction to the world of Bill Bryson and his many travelogues. I laughed my way through ‘Down Under’ and then ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’.

Somewhere between then and now I forgot about Bryson. Newer books and authors came under my purview and I never managed to read any more of his books. Not even the extremely popular ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, until last month when my husband mentioned a book that he wanted to get his hands on. This is how ‘The Body: A Guide For Occupants’ found its way on our book shelf and I was reintroduced to Bryson’s works.

Bryson retains his distinct writing style and uses humour to cut through the scientific jargon to present the reader with a guide of the human body. Each chapter is dedicated to different integral parts of our body, and each of these sections have their own stories to tell – interesting anecdotes, random facts, origin and discovery of some of the things that we take for granted today.

You should read this book if you are:

  • Interested in how we came to exist (and you should be!)
  • feeling a little down and inconsequential 
  • always looking for ways to sound smart in your peer circle (did you know: between one and five of your cells turn cancerous every day and your immune system captures and kills them)
  • in need of a reason to make smart lifestyle decisions (without being judged on your current unhealthy habits)

For me the book never got too science-y. Nevertheless, to avoid an overload of scientific information I picked up a book on short stories, as an in-between buffer read. Looking back, it really wasn’t required. Such was the ease with which Bryson had put forward his findings. Throughout the book he has cited his conversations and interviews with renowned scientists in their respective fields. He must have scoured through hundreds of research papers to present the end result in a format which can be mistaken for two friends chatting over a cup of coffee. In fact, multiple times during the course of reading this book I found his story-telling style similar to David Attenborough’s.

The introduction ‘How To Build A Human’ explores the mystery of life and the possibility of creating a human in the laboratory. As one moves along to the following chapters – the skin and hair and then the numerous microbes that reside on and in different parts of our bodies, I know that I will not be able to retain all the information. This is how complex our body is.

“Make no mistake. This is a planet of microbes. We are here at their pleasure. They don’t need us at all. We’d be dead in a day without them.”

– Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide For Occupants

It’s all fun and games till you reach the latter half of the book. There is a change in Bryson’s tone which now becomes grave and serious. The sections on bacteria and virus hit home hard. They were easy to relate to, specially due to the current Covid-19 situation. When Bryson ends the chapter of ‘When Things Go Wrong: Diseases’ by sharing an excerpt of his interview with Michael Kinch, a researcher with Washington University, you know it is meant as a warning.

“The fact is (Kinch says), we are really no better prepared for a bad outbreak today than we were when Spanish Flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago. The reason we haven’t had another experience like that isn’t because we have been specially vigilant. It’s because we have been lucky.”

Well, it seems our luck has started to run out…

2 comments on “Book Review – The Body, A Guide For Occupants: Bill Bryson

  1. Pingback: Book Review – A Short History of Nearly Everything: Bill Bryson – Five Magpies

  2. Pingback: Book Review – Notes From a Small Island: Bill Bryson – Five Magpies

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