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Bill Bryson’s The Body – a review

How old do you have to be to die of old age? Bill Bryson answers this question and many more in his newest book The Body: A Guide for Occupants.

As a Biology teacher, I am always looking for books that help me weave stories into science concepts. I know that they add interest and help me to remember, I hope that they do the same for my students. After I read Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything, I became a total fan and began reading as many of his books as I could. Now I have his latest – The Body: A Guide for Occupants. It fits all the criteria of what I like in a book. No, it is not a replacement biology textbook. Yes, it is a fabulous supplement full of stories and histories relating to human biology. In creating a guide to the human body, Bryson shows us how it all fits together. Once he explains how it works, he then tells us what can go wrong. As part of his research, he interviews experts from all around the world and gives us insights into some excitement researchers experience from their recent research projects.

As a case in point, Bryson tells us of his meeting with Dr. Ben Ollivere, “an old friend and a distinguished academic and surgeon”. Bryson describes their discussion of the science and ethics involved in the processes when a person donates their body to science. Bryson describes his own experience of viewing a body and the immediate questions that came to his mind which were answered enthusiastically by Ollivere.

Bryson’s book was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, in his chapter on ‘When Things Go Wrong: Diseases’, he tells of meeting with Washington University’s Michael Kinch and their discussion about the flu season. He shows how prescient Kinch was when he quotes him as saying: “The fact is we are really no better prepared for a bad outbreak today than we were when Spanish flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago. The reason we haven’t had another experience like that isn’t because we have been especially vigilant. It’s because we have been lucky.”

If you want to do some summer reading yet you feel your time might be better spent getting ready for next year’s Biology class, then Bill Bryson’s The Body fits both needs. Bryson’s book is set up predominantly on a systems approach thus making it a valuable resource for teachers. You would only need to review small sections in preparation for any chosen topic. But Bryson’s book is not just for teachers. He wrote it for everyone wanting to know more about the workings of their own bodies. The book has extensive chapter notes, bibliography, and detailed index.

By the way: Bill Bryson tells us that no person has died from old age in the United States since 1951. Since that time, there must be a specific reason given in the death certificate.

Links of Interest:
   Book reviews on Genome Alberta blogs
   I also tweet science and education @gwardis

Bill Bryson’s The Body – a review

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