The Body: A Guide for Occupants
© 2019 Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson would like to introduce you to someone: yourself. You really are a piece of work! Other authors have explored various aspects of the human body in detail – Mary Roach’s Gulp, for instance, on our digestive system — but Bryson delivers a full survey, from little bits and pieces to the body’s general options. Drawing on academic sources and popular science books alike, The Body proves that Bryson can be most entertaining when he’s not writing his grumpy travelogues. Bryson’s little chats about our brain or nose or whathaveyou isn’t limited to the strict biological aspects, as he also romps quite a bit through history. I was amused to read a man’s journal and spot that he’d been self-diagnosing himself by reading medical texts, jumping from panic to panic as people are said to do when browing WebMD. The star of the show is the body, though, and Bryson not only tells us all about what makes us work and how, but makes us appreciate the smallest members of our bodies — the pituary gland, for instance, which have an overlarge effect on the human experience. Bryson is consistently entertaining, and I found the chapter on the brain particularly compelling, in part for quotes like this:
The great paradox of the brain is that everything you know about the world is provided to you by an organ that has itself never seen that world. The brain exists in silence and darkness, like a dungeoned prisoner. It has no pain receptors, literally no feelings. It has never felt warm sunshine or a soft breeze. To your brain, the world is just a stream of electrical pulses, like taps of Morse code. And out of this bare and neutral information it creates for you—quite literally creates—a vibrant, three-dimensional, sensually engaging universe. Your brain is you. Everything else is just plumbing and scaffolding.
The Body will rank as one of my favorite Bryson works. To end, a few more highlights:
“You might have had the experience of looking at a clear blue sky on a sunny day and seeing little white sparks popping in and out of existence, like the briefest of shooting stars. What you are seeing, amazingly enough, is your own white blood cells, moving through a capillary in front of the retina.”
“Your visual field is surprisingly compact. Look at your thumbnail at arm’s length; that’s about the area you have in full focus at any given instant. But because your eye is constantly darting—taking four snapshots every second—you have the impression of seeing a much broader area.”
“Your brownie is sheet music. It is your brain that makes it a symphony.”
“In 2011, an interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time, more people globally died from non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke, and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combined. We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle. We are in effect choosing how we shall die, albeit without much reflection or insight.”
I really struggle with Bryson. I should like his work, but I just can’t get into it.
I think it depends STRONGLY on the book — his travel books are his worst, I think, because he’s such a complaining sourpuss.