There is an assumption the people make that is painful incorrect. It is the notion that your lived-in experience in your body gives you some kind of valuable insight into your body. The worst way to to see what I am referring to in action is to live, for any period of time, with a hypochondriac. They are the demographic who more than anyone else seem to read too much into what the body is and should be like, often on little or no evidence or experience. It is a shame there is not some kind of owner’s manual for the body, or a guide…
Enter Bill Bryson’s book, The Body. It gives you a passing glance at the body, and is filled with various interrelated facts about it.
I didn’t care for this book. There are two reasons for this, but before addressing those I will take a moment to speak to its virtues. I found it to be well written, well and well paced. There seems to be a sort of technical mastery to the writing. It won’t necessarily wow you, but it won’t get in the way.
My first major complaint about this book has to do with the subject matter, and the amount of depth the author chose to get into. I feel like there was no way he could possibly win this game. I am reminded of that opening anecdote in Samuel R. Delany’s excellent Of Doubts and Dreams where he compares writing to bleeding, and says that any explanation of either runs the risk of either being too simple (and thus not explaining enough) or too complicated, and thus alienating much of the readership. A book about the body seems to be doomed to sink navigating those rocky waters. I personally feel like Bryson aired far too much towards the simplicity side of things, and considering that there are now YouTubers popularizing medical discourse, Bryson could have gone a hair more technical. Then again, I am interested in this topic.
My second gripe is very much linked to this.
I enjoy factoids, but I also enjoy fast foods. I don’t think the two things are unrelated. The factoid seems to have that same very satisfactory feel to it that fast food does, but just as fast food lacks a certain collection of nutrients that would make the food worthwhile, the collection of factoids lack something that, at least for me, would give the factoid a kind of staying power in my head. The missing nutrients of my analogy would, I feel, be narrative cohesion. Generally, writers of creative non-fiction excel at exactly that, and it seems to always be there in those books that I have really enjoyed. But so far Bill Bryson has not been doing that for me. It is hard for me to figure out exactly what it is that is missing, for a certain amount of narrative cohesion is there, but for some reason it is just not hitting home. I will not give up yet, as I still have a copy of A Walk in the Woods and At Home waiting on my shelf to read. But I am not sure I will attack them with the same enthusiasm.