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The Body : A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

The Body : A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
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£20.99 £25.00

“Most of us know Bill Bryson as the funniest travel writer of his generation,” said James McConnachie in The Sunday Times. But the “genial American” – who has lived in Britain since the early 1970s – is also a dab hand at popular science. In A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), he elucidated the wonders of the universe; in his latest, equally “fact-rammed” book, the human body receives a similar treatment. We learn that every breath contains “25 sextillion molecules of oxygen”, and that each day you probably inhale at least one molecule from the breaths of every person who has ever lived. We learn, too, that scientists don’t know why we have chins, and that it would cost £96,546.79 to assemble all 59 elements in the body in sufficient quantities to build an adult male. The Body is by no means perfect: Bryson’s interests can feel “elderly” and “male” (digestion and obesity receive far more attention than periods and sex), and nor is he “as funny as I’d hoped”. Still, there’s much to inform and entertain, and if this book sells as well as Bryson’s usually do, “that will be no bad thing”.

“Wry, companionable” and “always lucid”, Bryson revels in the sheer oddness of the body, said Gavin Francis in The Guardian. Did you know that laid out “end to end”, our DNA would stretch “beyond the orbit of Pluto”? Or that a study of 60 belly buttons found 2,368 species of bacteria, 1,458 “unknown to science”? Towards the end, a note of anger enters, as Bryson notes the fact that even though during the 20th century, “life expectancy improved as much again as in the previous 8,000 years”, in some developed countries the rates have recently begun to fall again. Ultimately, Bryson’s book has a simple prescription for life: “eat a little bit less, move a little bit more”.