18 April 2011

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything is the first book by Bill Bryson I've ever read, and I'm enjoying it. Clear explanations (imagine the research!), great style, ... but is it a history book? I have two answers.

The first is that flat out, yes, it's a history book, a history of science.

The second answer is that it depends how you define history. Is it the story of beginnings (which is what I thought the title implied)? No. It's the story of how humanity (and by humanity, read scientists, varily defined) reached its understanding of the world, and what that understanding is. The actual history of the world is something very different (scientists may argue with me on this point).

For someone like me, unscientific, the book is a nice window on an unfamiliar world. And Bill Bryson has collected some mind-blowing stories, scattered them with effective personality sketches (remember the scientists) and written with style. He has a strong voice.

I've been reading the short history over the weekend and it's full of oh-my-goodness-not-really? moments. Taken out of context they probably don't have the same sort of impact as written into Bryson's narrative. He really is an effective writer. Take this fragment:

"fog is no more than a cloud that lacks the will to fly."

If you're looking for an enjoyable science book for non-scientists. This fits the bill (ha ha, made a pun! dearie me, really need my coffee this morning)


  1. Yes! J has been reading this in Polish and now we have to go buy the book in English for the kids. It'll be a sideways reference book for them (and me too!). Good call, Jammy! :)

  2. I wish this sort of book had been around when I was a kid. Who knows, I might have persevered with chemistry -- unlikely, those equations were weird.

    You know what else is weird (don't tell your hubby, he'll think I'm stupid) it's Polish. My nana (being Polish herself) once showed me Polish words written down. Mind-blowing moment. They don't look like language. No really, not to my child mind. So when you said your hubby read "A Short History of Nearly Everything" in Polish, I thought, "Wow, he's really, really clever."

  3. Well of course he is! He married me, didn't he? ;)

  4. Ok, so I set myself up for that comment :)


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