Review: ‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’ by Bill Bryson

Originally published on Goodreads.

Bill is a master of making the complex conversational and profound. Here, in truest form, he tells us how our “warm wobble of flesh” guides us through “the rare and supremely agreeable condition known as life”.

It’s hard to read this book quickly. Each page invites you to stare off into middle distance, to conceptualise or contextualise what you’ve just learned.

It’s hard to read surreptitiously, too. I found myself – at Bill’s command – stretching out my arm, holding up fingers, making and clenching fists, increasingly amazed each time as this physical act made some previously intangible fact fascinating. Or laughing out loud.

He tells us, almost relentlessly, how unlikely and incomprehensible our lives are. “No one can say why those seven billion billion billion atoms have such an urgent desire to be you”. This is done in a way that invites wonder rather than existential despair.

He tells us how much our understanding is based on guesswork; how science has the propensity to latch onto a figure and state it as truth when really it is anything but. The number of steps we should walk each day, for example (10,000 – arbitrary). Or the ratio of bacterial cells to human cells in each body (10:1 – plucked out of the air). The number of smells we can distinguish between (10,000 – a complete guess). Amount of water you should drink each day (8 glasses – a misunderstanding).

None of this discourages Bill, though. The goal is awed appreciation rather than a full and accurate comprehension, and we are invited along for the ride. You can tell just how agreeable Bill finds life – how intrinsically profound and rewarding – and how keen he is to convey this to anyone who is listening.

Amongst the nice-to-knows about the human condition – “if you blew up [a virus] to the size of a tennis ball, a human on the same scale would be 500 miles high” – are observations that give genuine pause. Some invite a new perspective: “there are thousands of things that can kill us… And we escape every one of them but one”. Others invite gratitude: when telling us about some unsung evolutionary advantage, Bill reminds us that “your forebears spent eons as prey to endow you with this benefit”.

The effect is that reading gives a new appreciation of life. Its complexity, how unlikely the whole thing is, and how wondrous.

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