When I was a teenager, I had an argument with a close friend about Bill Bryson.
We were both competitive debaters, which meant we were actively looking for rebellious, master's jobs as A short history of just about anything – something we could learn from as little as possible. It is easy to imagine the bewildered teenagers reading Bryson's new book, The Body: A Guide to Occupants in much the same spirit.
Of course we loved A short story – like everyone else, it seems. Bryson's famous book was something that academic historians today have the phrase: "great story." Only four years after a short story was published historian Cynthia Stokes Brown published a book of similar scope. It's called The Big Story: From the Big Bang to the Present . Far more than Bryson, Stokes Brown is seen as a person with an important approach to history: that human history cannot be fully understood without taking a much longer look at history as a whole, human and otherwise.
Independently, both authors had similar impulses: to communicate science, medicine, history, geography, what-have-you, just just for everyone to read. It is not contradictory to note that the illuminated world of academia tends to look at such works (the implicit argument is that something so ambitious is necessarily a work of synthesis rather than research) – but it is fascinating to note that for many, like me, who graduated from the academy, a work like A Short History might just have been a major push in the right direction.
However, this argument with a friend of mine was about something different: I claim that as wonderful as 's short story was, where Bryson really shone, he was in less paperback. Bryson's Shakespeare : The World as a Scene had just been released and was a grave call, but I found Bryson's idiosyncratic, even chaotic deviations across Elizabeth England and the contradictions about Shakespeare more fascinating, more fascinating, more fascinating, more fascinating A Brief History . Then only a partial function of age can then cause one to feel a strong sense of disappointment with the body . Quite a direct path through organs or organs (system of the brain, another of the skeletons, another of the intestines, etc.), The Body is the kind of book that makes one wonder how Bryson lost the magic touch, making very large books go beyond the general textbook. Often, in the body of is unclear as to what exactly makes Bryson think that the words of a living scientist or two per head are enough to entice the reader more than the introductory textbook on human biology. If anything, the way The body moves makes one desire to have subheadings and diagrams – things that textbooks have. So, what happened?
Perhaps most missing is Bryson's characteristic wit and ingenious means of analysis. There is a little of both. In the first chapter, Bryson walks us through a tour of the various price groups of scientific experts placed on the human body: “In general, according to [Royal Society of Chemistry] the full cost of building a new person using the mandatory Benedict Cumberbatch as a template would be very accurate $ 151 578,76. "It's a promising start. In A Brief History Bryson almost always uses fun framing to build on. In the Body is an early cascade that almost never tries again.
The reason Bryson has so many fans like me over the years is not because he is uniquely good at synthesis, but because he is able to do what such books cannot: do synthesis is a must-read. For my money, the best joke in this almost 400-page book with almost none is the following a study of the Polish chemist Casimir Funk, who came up with the idea of vitamins:
"Although Funk coined the term" vitamins ", and so is often credited for their discovery, most of the real work … is the work of others, – especially to Sir Frederick Hopkins, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1929 – a fact that leaves Funk permanently in one. " Bryson knows well that readers are sucker for good navel. But the jokes are too few and far between to make sense.
What The body has left is a heavy sense of didacticism and a pedestrian tone of relentless pomposity and hyperbole, so common in popular science books that aim to do anything about scientific discoveries, it just looks great . There is a glimmer of hope when Bryson uses bizarre, compelling stories. The story of Alfonso Bertilon, a man summoned to a murder scene in a Paris apartment in 1902, is one such flash. Bertilon continued to make the fact that fingerprints are unique, which makes prints a standard forensic technique; this relatively short story allows the reader to slide right into Bryson's thought about how it is not yet known what evolutionary purpose gives unique fingerprints and goes to more interesting things for the skin organ without Eureka! traps.
But more often than not, Bryson deviates from the storytelling entirely: When discussing heart disease, he writes that "the triggering public awareness event appears to have been the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt … when he died. .. the world suddenly realized that heart disease had become a serious and widespread problem. "That's all we get at FDR and this sudden transformation. Where Bryson could replace the void with an interesting story, he sets a period and just moves on to more boring topics.
The tendency to abandon the fruit threads can The body seems appropriate to inform readers of the contradictions in the history of biology. The awful, contradictory experiments that led to the knowledge of heart pressure are welcome, as is the furious rift between the two men who share Nobel. the city of physiology or medicine since 1923 for finding an effective way to get insulin, but there is nothing to help but wish Bryson a closer look at the dispute. He briefly flirts with the marvelous ethics of what is considered "brain death," and elsewhere, with the fact that because of patent savings, the vast majority of modern pharmaceutical companies have stopped looking for new antibiotics, but that's all they are: short flirts. And in at least one particular case, Bryson's aversion to sitting with the contradiction is truly pitiful. When discussing the cost of new therapies that work remarkably on certain melanomas, Bryson cites an professor of immunology. The professor asks, "What are we going to do … cure a few rich people and tell everyone else it's not accessible?" And Bryson says, "But this is, of course, a completely different problem." I honestly can't remember when I was more angry than the end of the chapter. Or, even more surprised, that the humanist writer of A Short History would be so ignorant of the broader connections and implications of his subject.
The truth is that it is simply not clear who the Body is for. Is this a kind of book aimed at children bored with textbooks, or aimed at the casual adult reader? Is it intended for people who care and know about the human body, or is it for people who know nothing about it? It is a strange burden to commission a writer to expect a completely different book from one that exists, but for many long-time fans of Bryson, this can be quite a puzzle.
And no matter who the reader is, it's hard to imagine The Body having the incredible impact that Short History has, especially at a time when there are so many wonderful books with such scope. The body does not rise to the level of splendor of Siddharth Mukherjee Jean or Henry Jie Over the Bridge ; Nein Shubin Your Inner Fish or the History of Daniel Lieberman The History of the Human Body. The sense of prose overcomes the ambition of scope – but perhaps in a sense I have the same argument I had as a teenager. I no longer like Bryson's less ambitious books. But this time it's not a big call at all.
Camil Achsan is a biologist, historian and writer based in New Haven. He is an editor at Barrelhouse and has appeared in Los Angeles Book Review, The American Prospect, Salon and Chicago Review, among other places.