Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cosmos and Stuff

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I must admit that science is not my strong suit -- I've always been more of a Humanities gal. In high school, I had to work harder in my biology and chemistry classes, whereas English, history and social studies always came more easily to me.

Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is a good overview of all the science classes I didn't take (or don't remember) in college. It's like Intro to Physics, Chemistry, Geology and Astronomy all in one wonderfully droll book. Since I read very few books about science, this was an enjoyable departure for me.

Here is how the book begins: "Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize. To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience this supremely agreeable but generally under-appreciated state known as existence."

Some of my favorite sections were about the Big Bang, the debate about the age of the universe, plate tectonics, Darwin's research, and the extinction of different species. After sharing various stories of how humans have killed off who-knows-how-many species, Bryson interjects: "I mention all this to make the point that if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn't choose human beings for the job." Sadly true, but also worth a HA!

I listened to this on CD read by the author, and if you've been following my reviews for a while, you'll know that I have a brain crush on Bryson and his narration. Seriously, I wish I could invite him over for tea and scones and just listen to him read all afternoon. (Bryson is from my home state of Iowa, but he's lived in England for so long that he's adopted a charming accent. It's adorable.) I was also able to look through a copy of the special illustrated edition, which includes dozens of photographs and prints. If you can find it, I highly recommend reading the illustrated edition.

"A Short History" was first published in 2003, and at the time, it was a big change from Bryson's previous travelogues. Since then, Bryson seems to have abandoned travel books and has been writing on different topics in history, such as the wonderful "At Home", "Shakespeare" and "One Summer: America 1927." While I enjoy his wry, humorous takes on history, I do miss his travel writing. If you're reading this, Bryson, please, take a trip somewhere. Have an adventure. Take a few notes and write another whip-smart travel book. Your fans will love it.

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