- The Good: Historical and anatomical facts and anecdotes
- The Bad: High level overview; lacking themes or take-aways
- The Literary: Highly researched
The human body is a marvel. Bill Bryson tackles its make-up and functions, making the science accessible, incorporating history and humor. Beginning with large body parts like the skin, head, and heart, the chapters transition to systems, including the endocrine, immune, and digestion, before concluding with disease states and medicine.
You’ll have plenty of time to marvel at your own existence. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, you can purchase all the necessary ingredients to make a human, just 59 elements, for about $150,000. Unfortunately, we still make humans the old fashioned way, and you can read about that in the chapter about birth.
What I like about this book is how alien your own body can seem the more you learn about it. I typically don’t spend much time thinking about my body. It just happens to carry around my consciousness. But most of it seems like science fiction. The contents certainly fill me with wonder, albeit tinged with disgust.
My favorite parts of the book are the context that follows the biology. Historical surgical practices, scientific discoveries, stories of survival, epidemiologists purposefully infecting themselves with pathogens, just to name a few. Chapter 20, When Things Go Wrong, feels even more timely with the COVID-19 pandemic.
I also enjoy the callbacks to previous chapters, when they occur. For example, evolution provided humans the ability to walk upright, but we face many struggles because of it. It’s not until the chapter on childbirth hundreds of pages later that you learn that birthing is so dangerous for human females specifically because of this.
Like most of Bryson’s books, this one is meant to be comprehensive but not deep, so it can easily feel too long and simultaneously lack a coherent theme. It’s pop science after all and not meant to be groundbreaking. I listened to Bryson narrate the audiobook himself, so it was easy to let the his narrative voice make up for the lack of nuance or introductory scientific explanations before delivering the fun facts.
Recommended if you enjoy good writing, trivia and brief anecdotes, and pop science!