Nonfiction, Psychology, STEM

The Body by Bill Bryson

A Guide for Occupants

After I didn’t love The Road to Little Dribbling, I wanted to give Bill Bryson another shot. My mom had enjoyed A Short History of Nearly Everything, so I thought I might try one of his more science minded books instead of another travel one.


From the publisher marketing:
Bill Bryson once again proves himself to be an incomparable companion as he guides us through the human body–how it functions, its remarkable ability to heal itself, and (unfortunately) the ways it can fail. Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and irresistible Brysonesque anecdotes, The Body will lead you to a deeper understanding of the miracle that is life in general and you in particular.

As Bill Bryson writes, “We pass our existence within this wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted.” The Body will cure that indifference with generous doses of wondrous, compulsively readable facts and information. As addictive as it is comprehensive, this is Bryson at his very best, a must-read owner’s manual for every body.

Where America really differs from other countries is in the colossal costs of its health care. An angiogram, a survey by The New York Times found, costs an average of $914 in the United States, $35 in Canada. Insulin costs about six times as much in America as it does in Europe. The average hip replacement costs $40,364 in America, almost six times the cost in Spain, while an MRI scan in the United States is, at $1,121, four times more than in the Netherlands. The entire system is notoriously unwieldy and cost-heavy. America has about 800,000 practicing physicians but needs twice that number of people to administer its payments system. The inescapable conclusion is that higher spending in America doesn’t necessarily result in better medicine, just higher costs.

Click on this graphic to explore the book page on LibraryThing!


The Body was one of my few audiobooks last year, I listened to remarkably few compared to previous years. I decided to finally listen to it while I was going through my own health scare last spring and, well, I guess I wanted to torture myself? Hoping for something along the lines of Mary Roach’s Stiff or Bonk, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to feel while listening – would I be terrified? Convinced I would die immediately? Or, hopefully, find something to laugh about?

Caveat – this book is written by a straight boomer white man. There are certain things that one would like to have seen more diversity in discussing, but was not included, most likely due to the author’s own internal bias whether intentional or not. While this did not change my enjoyment of the book, I’m sure it will affect how others will view it while reading or listening.

I tend to do nonsensical things sometimes – for instance, I listened to The Body when I was going through scans and testing for breast cancer (which I thankfully did not and do not have). I tend to hate reading about the things that scare me, or potentially trigger me, so my choice of book and time of reading shocked a couple of my friends and family. But oddly, it was actually helpful. In reading about all the other things that could go wrong in my body, breast cancer didn’t seem quite so scary.

Bryson starts at the head and works his way down to your toes, stopping to discuss different systems in the body along the way. It is pure pop science – there are entire books written about things that receive no more than a sentence in The Body, but I find that’s to be expected – this is a book for the lay person, not a doctor. As someone with a small medical background (I was originally pre-med in college and have taken many chemistry classes as well as science education classes), I felt like the perfect audience – I had enough background knowledge to be able to thoroughly enjoy the tour through the body. It would be the perfect book club book, for when book club discussions ultimately wind up with people saying, “I didn’t fully understand that part, Sarah can you go into teacher mode and help us understand?” No one actually says that verbatim, but I do frequently find myself in the position of sharing my background knowledge with others.

What this book is not, is Mary Roach funny. Bryson doesn’t insert himself into the narrative quite as much as he does with his travel memoirs or as Mary frequently does in her books. I read Mary’s Fuzz (review to come) at the same time I was listening to The Body and frequently found myself gravitating more towards Mary’s writing over Bryson’s. Mary’s natural inquisitiveness drives her nonfiction from page to page but there were definitely parts of The Body that I could tell Bryson was less interested in.

Overall, it was an enjoyable book to listen to and helped me pass the time in doctor’s offices and hospitals when I couldn’t bring myself to focus on a physical book in front of me, and for that, it will always hold a special place in my reading history.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Click this image to visit the book page on my Bookshop page!

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