The Body: A Guide for Occupants: An entertainingly fact-filled tour

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill BrysonThe Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill BrysonBill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019), is a light, in both tone and substance, tour of the human body. Filled with intriguing details and replete with Bryson’s typical ease of style, it makes for a fluid, fun, and often informative read even if it leaves one desirous of a bit more depth and cohesion.

Bryson begins with a general overview of “How to Build a Human,” noting how our DNA, if gathered into a single strand, would reach past Pluto, or how much the various components of our body are worth on the current market. From there he starts off the more detailed examination from the outside in, looking at skin (its purpose, its coloration) and hair, which allows him to move from the microbes that live on us to those that live in us. Some benign, others far less so. In one of the scarier sections of The Body, he explores the nightmare of antibiotic resistance, an arms race between medicine and germs that humanity is not only losing but, as he points out, are even somewhat conceding, not out of a sense of despair but because the big pharm companies have decided there aren’t enough profits in new antibiotics.

This is just one example of where Bryson is willing to dip into, if only briefly, into a few grim areas — the frightening, the morbid, the inhumane, or cruel. In the chapter on the brain he zooms through its various facets quickly and entertainingly, but also details the appalling history of the lobotomy and later, in the segment on the head, he lays out the virulent racism that lay underneath (and not deeply buried) much of the anatomical “science” of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Similarly, he explores, again in quick fashion, the impact of race and also class on health, illness, and experiences with the medical world.

Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson

Bryson doesn’t linger on the dark, however, always quick with yet another statistic that displays the sheer marvel of our everyday existence: the heart pumps out 1680 gallons of blood a day, bone is stronger than concrete, only 10 percent of what you “see” comes via the optic nerve; the rest is interpretation by your brain.

It’s all fascinating and wonderous in the true fashion of “wonder” (seriously, when you read, stop and actually ponder some of the miracle of what our body does), and Bryson, as noted, is a smooth, easy-going tour guide, showing a deft hand at the lucid analogy or witty aside as well as a good eye for the unfamiliar story of discovery/achievement. There’s some good advice in here as well, though as often is the case with health advice it basically boils down to “eat a little less, move a little more” (or possibly replace “little” with “a lot”). If I have any complaint it’s that despite its 400+ pages, The Body feels like it skates a little too much on the surface. Which, maybe, is impossible to avoid for such a broad overview. As such, I’d call it an excellent appetizer, one that tastes nice, goes down easily, and prepares you for a more full-course meal, say, like Mary Roach’s Gulp, Sandeep Jauhar’s Heart: A History, or Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene.

Published in November 2019. Bill Bryson, bestselling author of A Short History of Nearly Everything, takes us on a head-to-toe tour of the marvel that is the human body. As addictive as it is comprehensive, this is Bryson at his very best, a must-read owner’s manual for everybody. Bill Bryson once again proves himself to be an incomparable companion as he guides us through the human body–how it functions, its remarkable ability to heal itself, and (unfortunately) the ways it can fail. Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and irresistible Bryson-esque anecdotes, The Body will lead you to a deeper understanding of the miracle that is life in general and you in particular. As Bill Bryson writes, “We pass our existence within this wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted.” The Body will cure that indifference with generous doses of wondrous, compulsively readable facts and information.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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