The Body


Bill Bryson




Date Reviewed:

December 4, 2020

ill Bryson is on quite a roll. His last 4 books have all been marvelous: One Summer, At Home, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and now, The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Bryson has a knack for explaining almost anything, with amusing with "I-didn't-know-that!" facts and stories, while also giving you a tour of whatever he has selected as the topic of his latest book. In The Body, the chosen subject is (of course) the human body. There are 23 chapters (coincidence, because humans have 23 chromosomes?) and each chapter focuses on a topic such as the brain, the heart, skin & hair. There are some unexpected chapters - Sleep, Food, Cancer, and the grim final chapter called The End, which is about death.

Here is a Bryson factoid: researchers noticed that people who had their tonsils removed had a 44% increased chance of suffering a heart attack later in life. Another study found that people who kept their appendix had a 33% reduced chance of a heart attack in middle age. Of course, no one knows why removing the tonsils increases the risk of heart attacks. Bryson says "we just don't know" throughout the book. Despite all our modern medical expertise and instruments, there is still so much of how the body works that remains a mystery. The Body is full of topics in which Bryson is forced to say: "...and no one knows why." For example, why do humans need to sleep? Why are more and more people contracting allergies? Why are incidents of Crohn's disease increasing? Why is asthma increasing? Why are sperm counts decreasing? What do the sinuses do? What triggers menopause (it's not when the woman runs out of eggs)? Why do we suffer from chronic pain? Bryson's discussion of Alzheimer's disease is especially discouraging - not only do we not know what causes Alzheimer's disease, but progress has been so dismal that the pharmaceutical companies are abandoning research into anti-Alzheimer's medications.

Bryson covers a lot of topics, but there are some omissions. Muscles barely get mentioned; DNA, teeth, the joints, the thyroid - only mentioned in passing. But given the size of the possible subjects, it is understandable some subjects would get glossed over. Did you know your kidneys (20%) consume more of your blood supply than your brain (15%)?

This book was published in 2019. In the chapter titled Disease, Bryson explains that worst pandemic would not be caused by a disease as deadly as Ebola, because Ebola kills its victims too quickly. Instead, Bryson explains that a disease similar to the flu is more dangerous. The Spanish flu of 1918 was highly infectious, had a longer incubation time (so that it could spread undetected), and only killed a percentage of its victims - a virus with those characteristics would spread everywhere. Bryson describes a disease like COVID19 exactly, even though it hadn't even infected anyone when his book was finished.

Did you know that "infectious" and "contagious" are not the same thing? An infectious disease is one cause by a microbe; a contagious disease is one transmitted by contact.

In addition to warning about pandemics, Bryson also voices concern about our abuse of anti-biotics. Over prescribing is resulting in strains of diseases that are resistant to standard anti-biotics. Almost three quarters of 40 million prescriptions filled each are for conditions that cannot be cured by anti-biotics (viruses are not killed by anti-biotics). Couple that with the fact that lifestock are routinely fed anti-biotics to fatten them up, and the result is an environment where only the resistant strains of bacteria survive, and then flourish. Finding new anti-biotics is long and expensive; humans are currently losing the race against bacteria. This might go very badly for us.

This is book is very readable, entertaining and informative. You can't ask for more out of a non-fiction book. I hope Bryson is hard at work on his next subject; it is bound to be interesting whatever he choses to write about.