Finally! was my exhausted yet euphoric thought as I lay down Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything earlier today. I had loved Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods about his trek through the Appalachian Trail for its amusing anecdotes and slightly-terrified reverence for nature, but this work was a harder slog that quickly tired me out. So I’ve been reading it in fits and starts over the last two months, interspersed with lighter reads for sanity’s sake.
The good is that Bryson, as always, does a very good job of succinctly and wittily condensing the greatest questions about humanity and the universe, and our understanding of ourselves in our universe, into 560 pages. The bad is that that’s a lot of ground to cover so the material is very dense, dropping names and theories and hard science like the Niagara Falls drops water. Bryson tries the best he can to make everything comprehensible while comprehensive but in the end there’s not much more editing he can do.
A sampling of fascinating facts:
- Bipedalism can be largely blamed for the increased pain and risk of death during childbirth because the pelvic bone and birth canal had to be reshaped to accommodate walking upright.
- Dodos were so spectacularly dense that to find them, you only had to make one squawk and the others would flock to the source of the squawking.
- Einstein worked as a Swiss patent clerk, where he was denied a promotion but at least had the time and leisure to contemplate, leading to the theory of relativity.
I highly recommend it for those who want to deepen and broaden their science knowledge, but this is not a book that can be powered through. It requires thought and re-reading, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t able to do that, skimming through parts of the middle. However, this book is one of those that should be required reading at high schools because it offers an in-depth cross-curriculum look at a variety of subjects from geography to cosmology and physics to paleontology. I was thoroughly geeking out at the random bits of knowledge I learned, and will be insufferable at upcoming parties. But it’s not for the faint of heart!