Bill Bryson's 'The Body' Is Missing His Characteristic Wit, Ingenious Way Of Analysis
When I was a teenager, I had an argument with a close friend about Bill Bryson.
Both of us were competitive debaters, which meant we actively sought out sweeping, magisterial works like A Short History of Nearly Everything — something from which we could glean as much as possible from as little as possible. It's easy to imagine precocious teenagers reading Bryson's new book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, in much the same spirit.
Of course we loved A Short History — as did everybody else, it seems. Bryson's celebrated book was the sort of thing academic historians today have a phrase for: "big history." Just four years after A Short History was published, the historian Cynthia Stokes Brown released a book with a similar scope. It was called Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. Far more than Bryson, Stokes Brown is now seen as somebody with an important approach to history: that human history cannot be fully understood without taking a much longer view of history in general, human and otherwise.
Regardless, both authors had similar impulses: to communicate science, medicine, history, geography, what-have-you, simply, for anyone to read. It's not controversial to observe that the hallowed world of academia tends to look down upon such works (the implicit argument is that something so ambitious is necessarily a work of synthesis, not research) — but it's fascinating to note that for many, like myself, who ended up in academia, a work like A Short History may just have been a pivotal push in the right direction.
The aforementioned argument with my friend, however, was about something different: I contended that as wonderful as A Short History was, where Bryson really shined was in his less sweeping books. Bryson's Shakespeare: The World as Stage had just been released and it was a hard call but I found Bryson's idiosyncratic, even erratic detours through Elizabethan England and controversies about Shakespeare more charming, more page-turning, than A Short History.
It would be only partly a function of age, then, that may make one feel a keen sense of disappointment with The Body. A fairly straightforward traipse through organs or organ systems (a chapter on the brain, another on the skeleton, another on the gut, and so on), The Body is the sort of book that makes one wonder how it is that Bryson lost his magic touch in making very big books transcend the common textbook. Oftentimes during The Body, it's unclear what exactly makes Bryson feel that the words of a living scientist or two per chapter are sufficient to enthrall the reader more than an introductory human biology textbook would. If anything, the way The Body moves along, it makes one wish there were sub-headings and diagrams — things textbooks have. So, what happened?
Perhaps what's missing most is Bryson's characteristic wit and ingenious ways of analysis. There is a little of both. In the first chapter, Bryson takes us through a tour of the different price tags groups of scientific experts put on the human body: "Altogether, according to the [Royal Society of Chemistry], the full cost of building a new human being, using an obliging Benedict Cumberbatch as a template, would be a very precise $151,578.76." It's a promising start. In A Short History, Bryson almost always used a fun framing through which to edify. In The Body, it's an early stunt that's almost never attempted again. Wit is even more rare. This is a shame.
The reason Bryson has had so many fans, like myself, over the years is not because he's uniquely good at synthesis, but because he's able to do what similar books cannot: make the synthesis compulsively readable. For my money, the best joke in this almost-400-page book with hardly any is the following sentence about the Polish chemist Casimir Funk who came up with the idea of vitamins:
"Although Funk coined the term 'vitamines,' and is thus often given credit for their discovery, most of the real work...was done by others, in particular Sir Frederick Hopkins, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1929 — a fact that left Funk permanently in one."
Bryson knows well that readers are suckers for a good pun. But the jokes are too few and far between to make a difference.
What The Body is left with, then, is a heavy sense of didacticism, and a pedestrian tone of unrelenting pomp and hyperbole so common in popular science books that aim to make everything about scientific discovery seem just awesome. There are glimmers of hope when Bryson uses quirky, fascinating stories. The story of Alphonse Bertillon, a man called to the scene of a murder in a Paris apartment in 1902, is one such glimmer. Bertillon went on to deduce the fact that fingerprints are unique, which made fingerprinting a standard forensic technique; this story, relatively brief, allows the reader to glide right to Bryson's musings about how it is still unknown what evolutionary purpose unique fingerprints confers and straight on to more interesting stuff about the organ of skin without Eureka! traps.
But more often than not, Bryson shies away from story-telling entirely: When discussing heart disease, he writes that "the triggering event for public awareness seems to have been the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt...when he died...the world suddenly seemed to realize that heart disease had become a serious and widespread problem." That's all we get on FDR and this sudden transformation. Where Bryson could replace a gap with an interesting story, he places a period and simply moves on — to more boring subjects.
The tendency to abandon fruitful threads can be infuriating. The Body seems well-placed to inform readers about controversy in the history of biology. The gruesome, controversial experiments that led to knowledge about heart pressure are a welcome presence, as is the rabid discord between the two men who shared the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of an efficient way of procuring insulin. But one cannot help but wish for Bryson to move closer to controversy. He briefly flirts with the fraught ethics of what counts as "brain death," and elsewhere with the fact that due to the economics of patents the vast majority of modern pharmaceutical companies have stopped searching for new antibiotics. But that's all they are: brief flirtations. And in at least one particular case, Bryson's aversion to sit with controversy is truly damning. When discussing the cost of new therapies that work remarkably for certain melanomas, Bryson quotes a professor of immunology. The professor asks: " What are we going to do...cure a few rich people and tell everyone else that it is not available?" And Bryson says: "But that is, of course, another issue altogether." I genuinely cannot remember when I have been more enraged by the ending to a chapter. Or more surprised that the humanist writer of A Short History would be so ignorant to the broader connections and implications of his subject.
The truth is, it's just not clear who The Body is for. Is it the sort of book targeted to the children bored by textbooks, or is it targeted to the casual adult reader? Is it meant for people who care for and know about the human body, or is it for people who know nothing about it? It is a strange burden to put on a writer to expect an entirely different book than the one that is present, but for many long-time Bryson fans, this may be exactly the conundrum.
And no matter who the reader is, it is hard to imagine The Body making the kind of incredible impact that A Short History did, especially in a time when so many wonderful books with similar scope exist. The Body does not rise to the level of Siddhartha Mukherjee's wonderful The Gene, or Henry Gee's Across the Bridge; Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish, or Daniel Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body. The sense of the prosaic overwhelms the ambition of the scope — but perhaps, in a sense, I'm having the same argument I had as a teenager. I like Bryson's less ambitious books more. Only this time, it's not a hard call to make at all.
Kamil Ahsan is a biologist, historian and writer based in New Haven. His work has appeared in The Nation, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Prospect, and Chicago Review, among other places.
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