Book Review: The Body, A Guide for Occupants, Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson, prolific author, provides a fascinating and highly readable narrative on the human body and how it works. The author begins the book with the chapter ‘How to build a human’ in which he decomposes the human body into its natural elements.

In summary, the book consists of two narratives closely intertwined throughout. The first thread is the deconstruction of and a description of the key parts of the body and their relative significance. The second, is on the history of medicine and surgery as it relates to anatomy components and in doing so, he uncovers astonishing facts and insights on how medicine and healthcare evolved and provides interesting anecdotes on the pioneers of medical discoveries and solutions.

In one of the early chapters, Bryson dwells on the world of microbes that live off and in the human body. It is a matter of irony that his book was published just before the outbreak of COVID-19 and is therefore silent on the pandemic. He writes “This is a planet of microbes. We are here at their pleasure. They don’t need us as at all. We’d be dead in a day without them…where microbes are concerned we are really just at the beginning.” Of course there are beneficial and harmful microbes and the author acknowledges how little we know about them.

Despite the compendium of engrossing stories, the book falls short on a few counts. First, the book takes a largely mechanistic view of the body. The chapters zoom into localized discussions on body niches without really acknowledging the body as a network. For example, human skin and the muscular skeletal system are connected but the book remains silent on such relationships. Second, the book does not serve as a primer for prevention and at best Bryson makes fleeting references to prevention. Third the book is incomplete to the extent that it fails to address the significance of healing, the increasing adoption of alternative medicine and the impact of therapies like yoga and meditation on well-being.

In the final analysis, Bryson presents a purely occidental view of the human body but what makes it a good read is the author’s flair for a story-telling and his ability to make a technical subject accessible. If, only he took a holistic view, this would have been a truly incredible guide for occupants.

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