I know Bill Bryson from listening to his audiobook, A Walk in the Woods, over ten years ago. I remember enjoying it, so when I was looking for another good audio book for my commute and saw that The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019) was available, I checked it out. I found it consistently interesting and sometimes illuminating. It is a broad book that covers anything and everything related to health and life.
This book is divided into sections and chapters discussing: skin, the head, the heart, the lungs, diseases, the skeleton, sleep, and death–among others. Bryson includes a mix of biology and history. I learned a fair bit about doctors taking and getting credit for things they did not deserve.
Some things that Bryson hit on that I appreciated are the lack of women in drug studies. I’ve read about this problem in other places, and it has a significant and negative impact on healthcare for women. Bryson also discussed the overuse of antibiotics and how dangerous that is for all of us in detail I had not read about before.
The Body also tackles nutrition. Bryson mentions a number of competing studies, but it is such a large, controversial topic, that it would take a whole book to get into it properly. I still appreciate that he tackled the subject with so much other stuff going on in this book.
Some of the most interesting parts of the book for me were bits of history that Bryson brought up in relation to some part of the body that Bryson was discussing. The first was Rosemary Kennedy, sister to JFK, whose father had her lobotomized when she was a young woman. The ending is tragic. Despite the lack of science, lobotomies had grown popular at that time. Rosemary’s lobotomy did not help her, but left her institutionalized for the rest of her life.
I had also never heard of Unit 731 in Japan that perpetrated horrific war crimes against thousands of prisoners, women, and children during WWII. The Japanese in Unit 731 did “medical” experiments just as bad if not worse than the Nazis in Germany. No one survived and the abuse they suffered was beyond my comprehension. The United States agreed to keep it quiet and not try anyone involved for war crimes in exchange for the information the Japanese learned from the experiments. Everything about this story makes me despair for the human race, including the role the United States played in keeping it quiet.
Bryson also included some interesting, but not quite as dark bits of history. Nicholas Alkemade of the Royal Air Force survived a two-mile fall after his airplane was shot down over Germany. I never knew the details of Typhoid Mary and how she came to her name until this book. I also did not know of the rare genetic condition called fatal familial insomnia where people cannot fall asleep. It slowly kills them over a period of about three weeks.
It is eerie when Bryson starts discussing the number of diseases in birds and mammals and how easily they can jump over to humans. He also talks about the damage this kind of disease can do, which we are much more aware of since 2020.
Finally, Bryson talks about the end of life. We will all get old and sick and die, and it’s something that we all will face. A little depressing and scary to read about, but a fitting end to this book.
P.S. Bill Bryson read this audiobook. Occasionally his intonation reminded me of the Moira Rose character on Schitt’s Creek.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.