The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
Bill Byson is the master of making the mundane interesting.
Case in point, Bill’s book about walking (then not walking, then skipping ahead, then walking again) the 2,200-mile Appalachian trail was huge hit, with CNN espousing it as, “the funniest travel book ever written.” (Which might be a stretch, but A Walk in the Woods is certainly the best book about walking since The Lord of the Rings.)
Bill also wrote pretty definitive (and definitely comedic) history/travel tomes about Australia, Great Britain, the USA, Kenya,and Shakespeare, to name a few. (The Australian one is called In a Sunburned Country and it’s bonkers, because that place is bananas… B-A-N-A-N-A-S).
At some point Bryson decided to stop fucking around and just wrote out A Short History of Nearly Everything (500+pages of entertainingly accessible science), followed quickly by the incredibly domestic, At Home: A Short History of Private Life which contains chapters about all the ways a person can die on their stairs and the evolution of human hygiene revealed through the contents of our bathrooms. If nothing else, Bryson can massage the minutia of nearly any idea into multiple hundreds of pages of good reading.
And he’s saved the best for last. The Body: A Guide for Occupants is a tour de force of relatability—every single reader on the planet has a body, Bryson’s secret is he understands how very little most of us know about it.
“We pass our existence in this warm wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted. How many of us know even roughly where the spleen is or what it does? Or the difference between tendons and ligaments? Or what our lymph nodes are up to? How many times a day do you suppose you blink? Five hundred? A thousand?”
The answer, according to Bill (and I have no reason to doubt one of the best researchers in the game), is that we blink about 14,000 times a day. So often, that our eyes are actually shut for 23 minutes of every waking day. And all this is on page four—there are crazy, boggling facts about these juicy meat puppets we call home on literally every page of The Body (my copy runs 386 pages with another 75 of listed sources, bibliographies, and an index).
- The Average human has around 20 square feet of skin and it’s thinnest on our eyelids, just 1/1000 of an inch thick. (Page 11)
- All humans share 99.9% of their DNA, yet no two are alike. (Page 8)
- The spleen is about 1x3x5 inches in size, weighs around 7 ounces, and lies between the 9th and the 11th ribs (right next to the pancreas). It monitors blood cells, and dispatches white blood cells to fight infections. (Page 152).
- The first person to ever be confirm as an asymptomatic carrier of an infectious disease was a cook and housekeeper named Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary, and she infected dozens of well-to-do households (and at least one women’s hospital) with the deadly Typhoid virus before finally being apprehended in 1915. (Page 326)
That last bit makes an even more interesting read amidst the throes of a global pandemic, but this whole book is a showstopper for anyone curious about the inner workings of our inner bits. But chapter by digestible chapter, Bryson weaves funny, sad, inspiring, and very human anecdotes in amongst page after page of enlightening, (and sometimes frightening) facts. If only I were able to remember them all. (That’s probably indicative of an aging/deteriorating issue with my hippocampus—page 61— but it could also be all the weed I used to smoke. Either way, I could read this one again.