Book Reviews - Autumn 2019

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An anatomical tour of what it means to be human

By Raj Telhan | September 3, 2019
Illustration from <em>De Architectura Libri Decem</em>, Vitruvius Pollio, 1567 (Wikimedia Commons)
Illustration from De Architectura Libri Decem, Vitruvius Pollio, 1567 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson; Doubleday, 464 pp., $30

In The Body: A Guide for Occupants, his latest amble into the realm of natural science, Bill Bryson is not so much a discoverer of new lands as a charismatic cartographer of existing ones, smartly mapping points of entry into territory that might otherwise remain impenetrable to curious travelers. With light-footed prose, The Body  winds its way through the dense terrain of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry, elucidating for the reader how the human form functions. The result is an absorbing catalog of the human body in all its firmness and frailty. Bryson revels in the sublime intricacy of atoms, DNA, stem cells, cytokines, hormones, eyeballs, guts, neurons, joints, sweat glands, hair follicles, zygotes, and a great deal more. Along the way, he sprinkles existential asides about the body’s resistance to being fully known—even as it ultimately comes to know death.

The colossal roster of facts on display is dazzling: “[Y]our private load of microbes weighs roughly three pounds, about the same as your brain,” Bryson informs us. “Every time you breathe,” he goes on, “you exhale some 25 sextillion (that’s 2.5 × 1022) molecules of oxygen—so many that with a day’s breathing you will in all likelihood inhale at least one molecule from the breaths of every person who has ever lived.” There are “as many connections ‘in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way,’ ” he adds, quoting the neuroscientist David Eagleman. “The average grave is visited for only about fifteen years,” he explains with wry pathos, “so most of us take a lot longer to vanish from the earth than from others’ memories.”

In the interstices between these facts emerge numerous penetrating observations. Describing the outermost surface of the epidermis, consisting entirely of dead skin cells, Bryson remarks: “all that makes you lovely is deceased. Where body meets air, we are all cadavers.” And though this volume doesn’t possess the celestial luster of Bryson’s book about the universe,  A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), it is often filled with imagery that transports the reader from the human to the cosmic with linguistic swerve. Enumerating the vast lengths of DNA packed into all our cells, he notes: “there is enough of you to leave the solar system. You are in the most literal sense cosmic.” More comically, Bryson describes spermatozoa as the heroic “astronauts of human biology, the only cells designed to leave our bodies and explore other worlds.” Adding: “But on the other hand, they are blundering idiots.”

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