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The Body - Bill Bryson ****

I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson's travel books - he is a superb storyteller, and in the best parts of his science writing, this ability to provide fascinating facts and intriguing tales shines through.

After taking on the whole of science in his first book, here he focuses in on the physiology, anatomy and diseases of the human body. Bryson does so with his usual light, approachable style, peppering the plethora of facts (and 'don't know's - it's amazing how much we still don't know about the workings of the body) with the little nuggets you can't help but share and stories of some of the odd and, frankly, horrifying goings on in the history of medicine.

So, for example, Bryson throws in 'The chin is unique to humans and no one knows why we have one.' He speculates that it might be just that we 'find a good chin dashing' and quotes a Harvard professor as saying 'Testing this last hypothesis is especially difficult, but the reader is encouraged to think of appropriate experiments.'

It's a long time since I read Bryson's first science book, but I suspect that his Short History of Nearly Everything involved more going and talking to scientists, so had more of the feel of a documentary, and more opportunity to bring in his travel writing skills. Here, there was more of a focus on presentation of facts, though always in a way that felt more like a conversation with a friend than an introductory textbook on human biology - and there are still a number of interviews.

A good example of the way Bryson goes about exploring a topic is the way he deals with asthma. He starts with a story about the writer Marcel Proust, describing the many ways that Proust attempted to treat the condition, including enemas, opium and  having the gas to his house cut off. From Proust we move on to the way asthma has become more prevalent and the remarkable variation around the world - not, as you might expect, paralleling the degree of air pollution. It was shocking to read that the highest rate in the world is in the UK, where '30 per cent of children have shown asthma symptoms in the last year.' This is compared with rates around 3 percent in China, Greece, Romania and Russia. He then goes on, using an interview with an expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to show how most of our ideas about asthma are wrong. For example, he quotes Neil Pearce as saying 'the main thing I have achieved is to show that almost none of the things people think cause asthma actually do.'

Along the way Bryson takes us on a tour of the body, starting with 'the outside' (skin and hair) and working through all the main parts, the vast numbers of microbes that share our body, body functions - such as movement, eating and sleep - and diseases, finishing with a whole chapter on cancer and another on the way that medicine has developed from doing more harm than good to its present state.

This is the perfect book for anyone (like me) who had little to do with biology at school and to whom much of the functioning of human anatomy is a mystery. You know that with Bryson at the helm, the voyage through your inner workings is bound to be fascinating and entertaining. I wish there had been more opportunity for his humour and recounting personal adventures, as in his travel books, because this is where Bryson is at his best - but even when recounting facts he keeps the reader interested, never lingering long enough to get bogged down.

Well worth a look.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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