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

Rating: 8/10

The Body: A Guide for Occupants is a whistle-stop tour of the human body.  Topics covered range from the main systems of the human body, including circulatory, respiratory, digestive and immune  to sleep, pain and diseases. Bryson often approaches topics from an evolutionary perspective, not just explaining functions but also theorising how and why the human body reached its current form.

The Body is generally fast-paced and succinct. Bryson deftly covers a vast array of topics. He doesn’t dwell too long on any particular aspect, keeping the reader’s interest piqued. In school biology is too often taught in a dull way, with an emphasis on rote learning for exams, so this is a refreshing take on the basics of human biology. 

The collection of photos at the back of the book is a delightful addition, grounding the material in reality. Almost a third of the book is taken up by references, showing the huge amount of research that has gone into it, while allowing the reader to explore any topic further.

The chapter ‘A Microbial You’ is particularly apt in the current circumstances. One particularly eye-opening experiment discussed is when a metal door handle of an office building was infected with a ‘virus’. After only four hours the ‘virus’ had infected over half of the employees and was on almost every shared item! Bryson includes many similarly intriguing experiments throughout the book, an aspect that I really enjoyed.

Bryson highlights many little-known scientists who have played important roles in biology and medicine with mini-biographies. While many of these are interesting, the ratio of biography to science is often too high, distracting from the book’s main content. The stories about scientists become a bit boring, although there are a few gems. These unnecessary explanations are not limited to scientists, for example Bryson spends a paragraph describing ‘the very uncertain derivation’ of the word ‘acne’.

Sometimes Bryson overuses medical terminology, such as mentioning the lymphatic system without explanation, or listing out complicated-sounding parts of an organ. This detracts from the accessibility of the book, however it remains mostly accessible to all readers.

These flaws however are quite minor and The Body remains an enjoyable education in biology. A relatively light read, it is also relatively short, with the main text only occupying about two-thirds of its 464 pages. This book is full of fascinating snippets of biology and medicine, delivered in Bryson’s characteristic humorous style. Definitely worth a read!

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