Book choice: The Body

Review by Dr Greg Dollman

By Bill Bryson

Transworld, hardback, £25.00, 2019

Review by Dr Greg Dollman, Insight Primary editor

I MUST admit I was a little sceptical at first. How could anyone, even Bill Bryson, keep me engrossed throughout nearly 400 pages of a lay description of the human body? There are only so many “we blink fourteen thousand times a day” and “the body makes millions of red cells every few seconds, and discards one billion every day” facts that I could appreciate. I was wrong. Within the first few pages, Bryson describes the human body as “a warm wobble of flesh” and I was hooked.

The chapters whistle-stop their way through the anatomy and physiology of the body, reminding us how we come to be, what makes us who we are and how we live – marvelling at what ‘goes right’ and considering what can go wrong.

Bryson’s descriptions are witty and astute: he observes that, considering the nature of the skin’s stratum corneum, “all that makes you lovely is deceased”, and explains how we are infected with viruses and colds on being “exposed to others’ leakages and exhalations”.

The Body surely contains something for everyone. There are the bizarre facts (Bryson notes the difference in bowel transit times between men and women), the ‘pub quiz’ facts (the record for staying awake is 11 days, 24 minutes), the history lessons (pioneers of medicine along with the ‘firsts’), refresher courses on immunology, microbiology, nutrition (you name it, it’s mentioned) and of course the references (over 40 pages of them). I anticipate that experts will note factual inaccuracies, unsurprisingly given the volume and detail within the book. Remarkably, however, Bryson provides considerable facts and figures, in a very entertaining format, for a non-medical audience.

The Body provides a comprehensive account of something that I know reasonably well and yet managed to keep me turning the pages – and smiling while I did (contracting the orbicularis oculi muscle in each eye to make them sparkle, as Bryson tells us).