Saturday, February 18, 2006

Review of A Short History of Nearly Everything

Like most avid readers, I occasionally feel guilty if I indulge in too much fiction. So every once in a while, I browse through the nonfiction shelves in the hopes of finding something that is both entertaining and instructive. If you read a lot of nonfiction, then you know that this is not an easy task. More often than not, nonfiction books are dull, dry, and boring. In fact, there are more unfinished nonfiction titles in my bookcase than I care to admit. However, entertaining and instructive nonfiction books do exist, and my copy of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is a prime example of this phenomenon.

Those who are familiar with Bryson's name would most likely identify him as a travel writer. He is known for such works as Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, and In a Sunburned Country. So some people might find it a bit strange to see Bryson's name attached to a scientific work.

When I picked up A Short History of Nearly Everything, I was quite optimistic about what I would find inside. Anyone who has ever thought about the world or the universe at large most likely has had the very same questions that Bryson had when he set out to write this book. But if you've ever tried to read scientific works, you know that most of the books out there are far too dense and full of jargon for the average person to be able to understand. That's why when I heard that Bryson had attempted to produce a book that amounts to a "Cliff's Notes" version of the universe, I knew I had to read it.

Anyway, the book covers a lot of different subjects, which means that Bryson doesn't have time to treat any of them in depth. The book begins with Bryson recounting the various theories of how the universe was created. He tells how each of the theories waxed and waned in popularity, and which theory most scientists believe now. He also spends a great deal of time giving us some insight into the personalities and personal lives of the various scientists involved. Most people, I think, just know the names of scientists and what they are famous for without really knowing anything about their lives. Bryson's journeys into their personalities are a fabulous touch that makes the book both fun and interesting to read.

From outer space, Bryson next focuses on the Earth, treating of such things as our world's measurements and what the numbers mean. Another wonderful touch in Bryson's book is that he always tries to put huge scientific numbers into a context that the reader will understand. It's one thing to say that the sun is 93,000,000 away from the Earth; it's quite another to reduce that distance to a comparison that makes more sense to readers -- which is what Bryson strives to do throughout.

So after I read this book, did I suddenly understand how and why the universe, Earth, and life work the way that they do? Not really. But I came away with lots of interesting facts and figures that might help me in a game of Trivial Pursuit somewhere down the road.

Overall, I have to say that I think Bryson did a terrific job on this book. I read somewhere that it took him three years to write it, and I can easily see how that would be the case. He talks about so many different subjects, yet they are all connected and the book flows rather well. He also does an excellent job of distilling all the scientific information to make it more understandable and interesting to his readers, without adopting a condescending tone or treating the readers like children. In fact, it seemed that Bryson was learning right along with us, and his wonderment and amazement shine through in his prose on several occasions.

That's not to say that the book was entirely without fault. There were a few very boring parts that I couldn't wait to get through. But on the whole, it was actually a pretty good read.

So if you are looking for an interesting nonfiction book to tackle when you have some free time, then you really ought to check out A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

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