Book Review: The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

I first came across the name of Bill Bryson in a volume of interviews called A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration by Michael Shapiro. While reading this book, I made a list of travel books that sounded interesting, and one of these was A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. This was before Robert Redford got hold of the book, cast Nick Nolte as his sidekick, and made it into a movie. The movie is okay, but the book is brilliant. Bryson gets the thought into his head that he wants to hike the Appalachian Trail from its beginning in Georgia all the way to its end in Maine. It its entirety, the trail is about 2,200 miles long. He eventually gives up on the idea of covering all of it and hikes portions of it amounting to around 800 miles or so. The book is well-researched and contains fascinating facts about the trail, but its strength comes from its humor, Bryson’s light, whimsical style, and the numerous anecdotes he recounts of adventures and mishaps along the way.

In The Body, Bryson takes readers on a tour of human anatomy. After going over the outside, that is, skin and hair, and introducing the microbes that co-inhabit our physiques, he starts at the top with the brain and head, and then works his way down through the mouth, throat, heart, blood, glands and skeleton. He writes about equilibrium, exercise, the immune system, lungs and breathing, the digestive system and food, sleep, sexual organs, conception and birth, the nerves and pain, diseases, medicine, and death. In a book of this length, it is obvious that he cannot be comprehensive about any of these topics, and that’s not his intention. He’s not trying to offer you a course in anatomy; his aim is to entertain you, and in this he succeeds superbly.

Instead of taking you on a hike along a forest trail, Bryson takes you on a trip around the human body, but he retains the light, humorous style of his travel books. Instead of anecdotes of his own incidents and adventures while exploring a new land, he shares fascinating true tales that he has culled from medical histories. It’s in the nature of an amusement park ride in which you explore the body while at the same time you listen to a voice-over narrator relating interesting information about the parts that you pass along the way. It’s fun and edifying at the same time. You don’t need to know much about physiology to enjoy the ride, and although Bryson does go into basic explanations of the organization and names of the various sections, you don’t have to pay attention to those bits if you don’t want to; they are soon over and he is on to the next tidbit of information, fascinating fact, or historical account.

Don’t be put off by what may at first seem like the dry scientific subject matter. This book is well-written and a lot of fun to read. You might even inadvertently learn something.

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