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‘The Body’ a fantastic voyage

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How much do you know about the ways in which your body works?

Most people have at least a rudimentary understanding of some of the basics, but it’s a scant few that possess a truly thorough knowledge about the ins and outs of their assorted systems and the organs that make those systems go.

Don’t worry, though – Bill Bryson is here to help.

Bryson’s newest book is “The Body: A Guide for Occupants” (Doubleday, $30). It’s a thoughtful and thorough trip through the human body, an amiable amble from top to bottom and from the outside in. It’s a well-researched and witty exploration of the immense complexities of the human form.

As an author, Bryson has produced a wide body of work, but two of his favorite things are:

  1.     Talking about travel; and
  2.     Telling you stuff you might not know

Rarely have those two favorites aligned so elegantly than in “The Body.” Because that’s the thing; yes, he has put together a simply extraordinary amount of research – reading texts, interview experts, the whole nine yards – to give “The Body” its, well … body, but in many ways, this book is as much a travelogue as his beloved “Notes from a Small Island” – a fantastic voyage, if you will.

Right from the top, Bryson makes clear what kind of book we’re dealing with. In the first chapter (“How to Build a Human”), he gets right down to it, walking the reader through the long list of materials that go into making up the human body. There’s a lot of fundamental stuff – hydrogen, oxygen, carbon – but there are also a surprising number of trace elements that are very much part of all of us … even if science isn’t necessarily sure why that is.

That uncertainty is a semi-constant presence throughout the book. One of the joys of “The Body” is Bryson’s almost gleeful excitement in making sure that we know how much we don’t know. And not just “we” the readers – “we” includes the many experts whose lives have been devoted to studying the body and how it works. Despite having lived in bodies for the entirety of human existence, there’s still a lot we don’t understand about how they work.

Whether he’s explaining the multitude of microbes contained within each of us (“Microbial You”) or the wide array of chemical reactions that make us work (“The Chemistry Department”), Bryson is constantly pushing forward, exploring each aspect of the body with thoroughness and an unceasing wit. Want to know what the deal is with why we sleep? Find out that we basically have no idea in Chapter 16 (“Sleep”). Always wanted to know more about what the deal is with us walking on two feet? “On the Move: Bipedalism and Exercise.” He even ventures into far less rosy territory toward the end – the paired “When Things Go Wrong: Diseases” and “When Things Go Very Wrong: Cancer” – although even in the bleaker sections, the trademark Bryson humor is still there, easing the sting even as the darker side of the body is explored.

And it isn’t just the nuts-and-bolts scientific facts that we’re getting; there’s a whole lot of history as well. All of it contributes to the sheer readability that is a hallmark of Bryson’s always-engaging work.

Taking all of this information and distilling it down into something readable is an impressive accomplishment. To do that while also creating something engaging and entertaining is exponentially more so. And really, that’s the unique gift that Bill Bryson to the table; he finds the sweet spot in the center of the educating/entertaining Venn diagram as well as any nonfiction writer out there. No one writes about the travel experience quite like he does; it just happens to make zero difference whether the journey on which he’s guiding us is an internal one or an external one.

“The Body” is a fantastic example of creative nonfiction, a clever and wonderfully informative trip through the human body led by a guide who’s smart enough to share what he knows and acknowledge what he doesn’t. You’ll learn things you never expected about the ways in which your body works and the reasons behind those workings – except when Bryson (and all the experts he encounters along the way) simply shrug their shoulders. Ultimately, while it’s fun to know why things work, it’s not always necessary. Sometimes, they just do – and that’s enough.

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 November 2019 07:37

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