Extraordinary stories about the heart, lungs, genitals … plus some anger and life advice – all delivered in the inimitable Bryson style. —Gavin Francis in The Guardian

The master chronicler does it again

Bill Brysonby Roger Childs

If you’re a Bill Bryson fan and haven’t read it, The Body is a treat in store. If you are not into this legendary non-fiction writer yet, it’s time to get started! Bryson has crafted an amazing array of books on topics ranging from Shakespeare and Appalachians tramping, to the origins of the American language and travelling around Australia, Britain, Europe and the States. He is possibly the world’s greatest living non-fiction writer and should be given a Nobel Prize for Literature.

His research is always meticulous and comprehensive, and he has a marvellous ability to provide the reader with fluent and interesting discourse laced with quirky humour and fascinating detail.

No body part left unturned

The BodyThe Body covers the functions and anatomy of everything from the skull to the feet including what can go wrong, It also looks at all the stages of life with their various ups and downs, and finishes appropriately, with death. His last line is And that’s you gone. But it was good while it lasted, wasn’t it? 

He look at the incredible ability of the body to protect various systems and, in many cases, to heal itself.  In typical Bryson style, there is an enormous amount of detail, and lists and analysis of elements, cells types, blood features, enzymes, molecules, cancers etc … many of which you will never have heard of. There are also plenty of amazing statistics – how many times, how long, how much and how fast. Comparisons between genders, age groups and countries also feature regularly.

The Body 1Compared with his other books there is not as much humour, which is perhaps understandable given the subject, but the lighter side still features, as in some of the quirky chapter titles such as Down the Hatch, Into the Nether Regions, The Guts, In the Dissecting Room and Deep Breath. Above all, the book is highly informative and frequently quotes top medical authorities who are experts in ears, bones, lungs, the nervous system, the heart, the brain etc…

Maintaining the interest

As Bryson readers know well, the author always uncovers all manner of intriguing and fascinating stories, people, anecdotes and unusual events. The Body is no exception. You’ll find

  • the history of medical discoveries and treatments, and fascinating accounts of how many aspects of our knowledge today were found by accident
  • the many failures, as researchers and medical people tried to discover how things worked and sometimes killed themselves 
  • excruciating stories of patients enduring horrific pain and surviving pioneer operations – In 1882 …William Halstead conducted one of the first surgical removals of a gall bladder, on his own mother on a kitchen table ..
  • doctors who continues with pointless and damaging operations for years, often resulting in needless disfigurements, disabilities and deaths. Walter Jackson Freeman performed thousands of useless lobotomies including one on the vivacious, attractive but moody Rosemary Kennedy which resulted in her living for another 64 years …unable to speak, incontinent and bereft of personality.  
  • many unsung heroes who made discoveries that went unheralded for decades and numerous scoundrels who stole the research ideas of colleagues and students
  • countless researchers and experimenters who justifiably gained the recognition they deserved with the pinnacle being a Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Advice and criticism

Bryson makes the point that he is not a medical expert, however there is plenty of good advice given along the way.  He is also relentless in his criticism of the American health system; doctors who over-treat and over-prescribe (One person’s over-treatment is another’s income stream), and drug companies who produce pills and medicines which are totally ineffective.

“The Body” is fascinating and absorbing, informative and entertaining, critical and educational. The sub-title is highly appropriate – “A Guide for Occupants”. It’s well worth borrowing from the local library or having on your own shelves.