Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reader's Diary #490- Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

Friend and fellow blogger Barbara Bruederlin (aka The Bad Tempered Zombie) has been trying to finish this one for four years. She claims to enjoy it and understand it, just inexplicably hasn't finished it. Our mutual friend Allison (aka Flying Buttress) recently revealed the same. I can now prove, once and for all, that I am better than they. In your face, ladies.

This has been my first experience with Bill Bryson and I'll definitely be back. I found a Short History of Nearly Everything to be witty, understandable, and well-constructed. It wasn't, however, what I thought it would be.

Despite its popularity, I knew very little about the book. Given the title, I was expecting to get a lot of stuff about past wars, religion, politics and the like. But it's really a short history of nearly all the sciences. Beginning at the beginning, if there actually was a beginning, Bryson discusses the origins of the universe, the origins of the Earth, the origins of life, and the origin of us.

I loved his knack of putting things into perspective. Probably this stems from his non-science background. I imagine that the real scientists are so used to working with their numbers and figures that they have no idea how meaningless all those facts can be to the layperson. Look at the way he describes the distance between the Earth, Jupiter and Pluto:
On a diagram of the solar system drawn to scale, with the Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over 300 meters away and Pluto would be two and a half kilometers distant (and about the size of a bacterium so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway.)
He goes beyond the simple stating of distance and really makes one appreciate it.

I also quite enjoyed the way he personalized the scientists. I'm not sure why this made their science all the more interesting, but it did. All the animosities and eccentricities, I guess it just made me appreciate that anything got done at all.

Then there was the wry wit. This is one of my favourite examples from the book:
In the late summer or early autumn of 1859, Whitwell Elwin, editor of the respected British journal the Quarterly Review, was sent an advance copy of a new book [On the Origin of Species] by the naturalist Charles Darwn. Elwin read the book with interest, and agreed that it had merit, but feared that the subject matter was too narrow to attract a wide audience. He urged Darwin to write a book about pigeons instead. "Everyone is interested in pigeons," he remarked helpfully.
I'd also say A Short History of Nearly Everything is the perfect length. At 574 pages before end notes, I'm sure many people would suggest he'd barely scratched the surface of scientific research. To phrase it the way Bryson might, you'd have to add about 75,000 "Short"s to the title, to get a sense of how little he actually covered in such a small space. However, I did find it just bordering on overwhelming towards the end. One of his descriptions at around page 500 made me think of ants and how we've all been told that they are so strong, it would be like one of us lifting a school bus over our heads. Yes, it's fascinating, but what have we ever done with that information? Really, I could probably have more conversations with people just by learning the names of Angelina Jolie's kids. I quickly recovered by imagining those conversations, but I knew the book had to wrap up fast.

10 comments:

gautami tripathy said...

I too have been trying to finish this book for the past four years! Better you than me!

Maybe this summer...

barefootheart said...

Interesting review, John. I haven't read Bryson myself, although my daughter is a big fan. I think your comments really accentuate how hugely inadequate science education is in our high schools. Most people have the barest idea about the nature of things, and there is so much to know. How can we make appropriate decisions about preserving natural habitat and climate change when we don't even know the most basic things about the world around us? Perhaps more outdoor education, pond studies, birdwatching, would help to give kids a better framework on which to hang facts.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Okay John, I readily admit, you are a better man than I am. This really is a fine and entertaining and well-written book, and now my life's mission is to finish this book this summer. You enabler!

raidergirl3 said...

Yep, loved the book. Bryson had just the right combination of humor and facts and plain old amazement to keep it going. I too thought it just a tad long, once it got to the boring biology facts.
physics and chemistry for the win!

Carrie K said...

In their faces! lol.

Bryson is pretty hilarious at times and still manages to inform. Not that I've read this one of his. Hmmm. At least I didn't start it and stop, like some people...

gypsysmom said...

I've loved everything that I've read by Bill Bryson. That includes: In a Sunburned Country, Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. I don't know how old you are but if you can remember the 60s and some of the 50s (I know I'm dating myself) you will find the latter absolutely unputdownable. If you can't remember the 50s you still might get it especially if you grew up in a small town.

Notes on a Small Island gave me a moment of uncontrollable laughter (which frightened my cat and made me glad I hadn't got to that passage on my bus ride from work) which has never happened to me while reading before or since.

I have not read this book which surprises me because I am a science geek. I'm going to have to track down a copy.

John Mutford said...

Gautami: It's like a four year itch or something.

Barefootheart: Science isn't the only subject school has managed to make dull, unfortunately.

Barbara: Or you could just finish Tess of the D'Ubervilles and we could call it even.

Raidergirl: I think, had he started with the biology stuff, the others may have dragged at the end. The 500 page mark may have been the issue.

Carrie: This is my first Bryson, but I'll be sure to read another.

Gypsysmom: Impossible for me to remember the 50s or 60s, and I don't remember any of the 70s (born in 76), but I did grow up in a small town, and in Newfoundland, so yes, I may be able to relate.

Ali said...

I've only ever read his travelogue-type books, I had no idea he'd written something like this. I think I'll have to get it so it can sit on my bedside table for a year... ;-)

Dale said...

May I join the ranks of those who haven't finished this book? Come to think of it, I probably clock in at the 3 if not 4 year mark for not finishing too!

Lahni said...

This is one of my favourite books ever. I used to read a little bit of it each day to my high school science students at the beginning of each class. They loved it!