Book Review by Ngarie Macqueen – The Body

The Body : a Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson.

The Body contains a concise explanation of both the historical and current knowledge of the human body with each chapter focusing on a particular organ, body system, physiological process or disease.

The Body by Bill Bryson is the second Bryson book I have read. What is most interesting about his writing style, and the thing that will encourage me to read more of his books, is that he makes non-fiction content entertaining by combining details and data with other contextual information and humour. In The Body, this involves descriptions and comments on the temperament and lives of the scientists who have discovered what we currently understand about the human body. This also helps highlight the unsung heroes of the scientific world. For example, Charles Scott Sherrington is not well known despite the numerous additions to the current understanding of the human body added as a result of his work. In addition to being a beloved teacher and overall wonderful person, Sherrington did important work on tetanus, industrial fatigue, diphtheria, cholera, bacteriology, haematology, coined the term ‘synapse’, our understanding of proprioception and he also proposed the law of reciprocal innervation for muscles, which essentially explains how muscles work. Knowing more of this contextual information does not change the data presented, it does however make it more interesting to read. However, Bryson is balanced in what he presents and he also shows the toxic and not so palatable sides to scientific discovery. There are tales of teachers taking credit for the work of their students, tales of surgeons performing lobotomies via ice picks through the eye sockets (with no anaesthetic!) and some of the harsh truths about how we know what we know about the human body due to some German and Japanese scientists experimenting on prisoners of war during World War 2.

One of the most topical and fascinating sections was in the chapter on diseases, specifically on viruses. Bryson states that a “successful virus is one that doesn’t kill too well and can circulate widely”, i.e. if someone can be infectious before they become symptomatic as well as for up to a week after they recover. He goes on to write that the flu is more dangerous than people think, as it already kills many and it has the ability to evolve very rapidly. As Michael Kinch from Washington University is quoted in the book saying, “The fact is…we are really not better prepared for a bad outbreak today than we were when the Spanish flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago. The reason we haven’t had another experience like that isn’t because we have been especially vigilant, It’s because we have been lucky”. The book was published in 2019, but was likely written over a longer period of time before that, so the truth in the statements are eerily prophetic in nature considering the world today.

Though The Body covers a breadth of areas and includes a lot of detail, it is an entertaining and informative read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in understanding more about their own body (hopefully everyone!).

Reviewed by Ngarie Macqueen – Casino Library Coordinator.

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