A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Anchor Canada, 2004, 560 pages, C$23.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-385-66004-4

It’s hard to find out a book that lives up to its hype, especially when the hype is near-unanimous.  For years, I’d heard about Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in numerous book-recommendation lists, usually accompanied with superlatives about it being an exemplary work of science vulgarization, and the kind of book fit to expand minds.

So imagine my surprise in finding out that A Short History of Nearly Everything lives up to its intimidating hype.  The most surprising thing about the book’s success may be that Bill Bryson is not a trained scientist.  Nor was he, prior to the book’s publication, known as a science writer: His output until then focused on light-hearted travel books and other personal essays.  A Short History of Nearly Everything was designed to be something else: A 500-page behemoth taking on all of creation, doubling as an exploration of the state of scientific knowledge and where much of what we know about the universe comes from.  In the book’s introduction, Bryson flat-out sates that he wrote the book for himself, to self-learn what he through he’d missed in his formal education, and to patch the holes left by dull science textbooks.

He succeeds admirably well.  A Short History of Nearly Everything is supposed to start at the Big Bang and end at the dawn of human history, but the entire book is a celebration of the human drive for knowledge.  In discussing Earth’s formation, for instance, Bryson spends as much time telling us how scientists came to understand what we know about the Earth.  There are numerous anecdotes about the early days of science, and the heroic sacrifices required to find out things that we now take for granted.  Disastrous expeditions seem to be the norm for 19th century science, even (especially) when they lead to comparatively mundane innovations such as topographical map contour lines.  A Short History of Nearly Everything presents the scientist as a hero, and well-chosen portraits make it clear that even ordinary people can make extraordinary discoveries.  Little of it is dull given how the scientist-as-an-eccentric becomes a constant through much of the narrative.

Even for readers with a good general scientific background, the list of new and unexpected nuggets of information and overarching links between disparate fields to be gleaned from the book is astonishing.  Nearly every page has a fascinating snippet or two, and Bryson’s generalist instincts serve him well in drawing evocative parallels between dissimilar areas.  It helps a lot that Bryson knows how to write smooth and easy yet factually-dense prose.  He’s as insightful as he is hilarious, and the resulting blend is simply intoxicating.  A Short History of Nearly Everything is a fantastically well-written book, and the prose style is just as entertaining as the subject matter.

More than celebrating science, though, A Short History of Nearly Everything is perhaps at its most interesting when it charts the circa-2005 limits to human knowledge.  He acknowledges the limits of what we know and the ways we think we figured it out: It turns out that our understanding of fossils is based on a far small sample than you may expect, and that several areas of human knowledge remain curiously under-explored.  Rather than cast doubt on science itself, those gaps and paper-thin inferences only serve to inspire: There is still a lot of science left to be done, and the way we’ve been able to learn so much from so little, is nothing short of awe-inspiring at our own human cleverness.

Nearly ten years after the book’s writing, and at a time when it seems that nearly every scientific popularization is riddled with errors and simplification, you may expect A Short History of Nearly Everything to be similarly undermined by a long list of errors.  But a look through reviews and commentary about the book merely reveals a distressingly short list of errors for such a big book and general praise from knowledgeable audiences.  (Although I’ve been able to find a few strongly dissenting voices, most of those are in the form of forum posting, not well-argued reviews.  Leave any in the comments, please..)

Frankly, A Short History of Nearly Everything is such an exceptionally good book that the worst thing I can say about it is that I’m already mad at having forgotten a substantial chunk of it.  Get the book, read it and be amazed, not only at the prose, but what it tells us about ourselves.  Then don’t be surprised to find yourself praising its merits to others.

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