- - Tuesday, October 8, 2019


We all have one — and only ever one. It’s a body. When it goes, we’re gone, so it’s best to look after it while we’ve got it.

To do that, it helps to know what’s inside it and how it works. That’s what Bill Bryson sets out to tell us in his latest book “The Body: A Guide for Occupants.”

As in his numerous earlier books — notably “The Mother Tongue and A Short History of Nearly Everything” — this volume is full of humor, but also packed chock-a-block with information.  

Some of it you may feel you’d rather not know. One relative of mine prefers to think his body is full of sand rather than contemplate the beating of the heart, the physics of the eye, the strategies of the liver and, especially, the myriad coils and containers of the alimentary system. Mr. Bryson’s encouraging comments jolly such folk along:

“It’s pretty amazing,” he notes, “that you can sit at a dinner party, enjoying yourself extravagantly — eating, talking, laughing, breathing, slurping wine — and that your nasopharyngeal guardians will send everything to the right place, in two directions, without you having to give it a moment’s consideration. … While you are chattering away about work or school catchment zones, the price of kale, your brain is closely monitoring not just the taste and freshness of what you are eating, but also its bulk and texture … Meanwhile, you, far from assisting this critical process, just keep pouring more red wine down your throat, destabilizing all your internal systems and seriously compromising your brain’s functional capabilities.”

Exactly how everything functions — and, especially, how it all functions together — is explained in 23 chapters, most of them devoted to one part of our physiology, beginning with “The Outside: Skin and Hair” and moving on through every bodily system until we reach “Nerves and Pain.” All this is extraordinarily informative, both in tracing how early doctors and researchers worked out what happens inside us, but also in highlighting how much of our medical knowledge was not discovered until the late-19th century or later. 

And, as the author often points out there’s still lots to learn. We don’t even know why we age. Noting three types of theories — genetic mutation theories, wear-and-tear theories and cellular waste accumulation theories — he says “It may well be that all three factors work together, or it may be that any two of the above are side effects of the third. Or it may be something else altogether. No one knows.”

But what we all know and suffer is disease and death. The final four chapters of “The Body” deal with these, and the picture is darker because we see how much of what happens to us when we are sick is not just biological: It’s also social and financial.

As a result, the people of some countries have much better outcomes than those of others. This is not just a matter of rich countries outstripping the poor ones, though wealth is a factor. You are likely to live until your late 80s “If you are middle-aged, well off, and from almost any high-income nation.”

Nonetheless, when it comes to curing the diseases that kill us — heart disease, cancer — even high-income nations exhibit big variations. “It is not a good idea to be an American,” Mr. Bryson writes. “even being well off doesn’t help you.” As he says, this is counter-intuitive considering not only the wealth of America, but also that the country spends on health care “two and half times more per person … than the average for all the other developed nations of the world.” 

He explains this paradox by noting America’s unhealthy lifestyle, including over-size food portions; the risks of traffic and gun accidents, especially to young people; and the colossal costs of health care. Notably, when it comes to the five-year survival rate of cancer patients, the United States is tops for breast cancer, but South Korea and Australia are significantly ahead for colon cancer, Japan and Denmark for cervical cancer. Overall for cancer survival, “Australia, New Zealand, the Nordic countries and the wealthier nations of the Far East all do really well, and other European countries do pretty well. For the United States the result is mixed.”

This is scary. But the overall impact of “The Body” is celebratory. The author marvels at the intricacies of the human body and its extraordinary feats of timing and fine-tuning. He digs into history to show the persistence and tribulations of researchers. He describes the amazing feats of medicine and surgery accomplished in the last few decades. Even his critical account of how America, and also Britain, fail their people medically is invigorating. 

In short, this fact-packed story-strewn volume is a fascinating read, a book to own and return when questions arise — as they always do. 

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

• • •


By Bill Bryson

Doubleday,  $30, 464 pages

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