At school, I chose to study biology instead of chemistry because there was less math involved. Give me a stack of index cards and I’ll have them memorized by the end of the day. Give me a pile of equations, however, and I’ll be crying before I unload my backpack.
Despite having a clear preference, I’m not particularly interested in science. Sure, I skim the science section of the New York Times, but I greatly prefer reading Dining news. There was that first year unit I took in ‘comparative world archaeology,’ but I didn’t anticipate it being quite so science-y. I am a creative who cannot ignore science’s organized allure.
Given that juxtaposition, I guess it shouldn’t surprise you that I was quite eager to read A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; a meeting of science and literature, all packed up in one tidy book. Or something close to that. There were moments when A Short History was a laugh-inducing page-turner like Bryson’s other works, but there were not infrequent points left me sitting in my eleventh grade biology classroom once again.
Bryson attempts a daring task with his book and he knows it. Trying to catalog human history is impossible for scientists and an insurmountable obstacle for those of us more accustomed to reading about Savannah or Amy and Nick. Bryson organizes his book into various different sections, each of which spans its unique history. He goes from the utterly basic (the planet/the atmosphere) to the more complex (humans). Most of the writing focuses on the biology as opposed to the chemistry of our world. This slant makes the concepts digestible even to those with no previous knowledge of the subject.
I wanted to love this book. I hoped it would be as compulsively readable as At Home. Although I enjoyed it, the topic didn’t speak to me in the way that his previous books did. To get the most out of this book you do need to have some interest in science. Despite the fact that the topic is, literally, universal, the interest in it veers to the niche. While I like knowing about where humans come from and the difficulties with carbon dating, I’m less intrigued by the atmosphere and space. It’s fascinating, but reading a magazine article sounds more appealing than a hundred page chapter. Although I read it from cover to cover (or whatever you’d call that on a kindle), I think I would have gotten more out of it had I dipped in every now and then, allowing myself to digest the more complicated bits.
Even if the book feels long and niche at points, there are other, frequent moments, during which Bryson manages to transform the topics from science to inspirational writing. He can make a discussion of fossils into a discussion about the wonders of humanity. Talking about cells and DNA leads to statements about our connectedness. Perhaps the most gripping part of the book is that Bryson really seems to be filled with wonder and optimism regarding humans’ role and survival in the universe.
That’s something you definitely won’t find in a biology textbook.
Chemistry? Biology? Which one did you study in school?
p.s. Do we have the same taste in books! Follow me on Good Reads! I read way more than I post about on here.