Review: The Body: A Guide for Occupants
Updated: Sep 12
The Body: A Guide for Occupants, by Bill Bryson (2019)
If you didn't know already before reading this book, you would definitely be able to quickly gather that it is written by a Straight. White. Male. *insert eyeroll*
For the first quarter of the book I was really enjoying it - lots of cool factoids about the brain, the lungs, and about the five senses that I'd never heard before. It made me feel very present in my body to be reading about a specific body part doing its job, knowing that MINE were doing that very job right then. For example:
SKIN: “The outermost surface of the epidermis, called the stratum corneum, is made up entirely of dead cells. It is an arresting thought that all that makes you lovely is deceased. Where body meets air, we are all cadavers.”
LUNGS: “Your lungs, smoothed out, would cover a tennis court, and the airways within them would stretch nearly from coast to coast. The length of all your blood vessels would take you two and a half times around Earth. The most remarkable part of all is your DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid). You have a meter of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single strand, it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system. You are in the most literal sense cosmic.”
And the most fascinating and weird thing I read in the book:
EYES: "For each visual input, it takes a tiny but perceptible amount of time—about two hundred milliseconds, one-fifth of a second—for the information to travel along the optic nerves and into the brain to be processed and interpreted... To help us deal better with this fractional lag, the brain does a truly extraordinary thing: it continuously forecasts what the world will be like a fifth of a second from now, and that is what it gives us as the present. That means that we never see the world as it is at this very instant, but rather as it will be a fraction of a moment in the future. We spend our whole lives, in other words, living in a world that doesn’t quite exist yet.
Like... what?! Everything I see is the future?! I'm a time traveler!
Unfortunately, it went downhill from there... Bryson could use some major sensitivity training, and a good female &/or BIPOC editor. As Stefon would say, this book has everything: ableism, sexism, racism, and fat-phobia.
A few examples:
Ableism: Using words like "suffering from" or "lacking" when referring to people with disabilities.
Fat-shaming: Citing the extremely problematic and entirely unreliable Body Mass Index (BMI) as a measure of body fat and overall health. If you don't know why the BMI is such a piece-of-crap tool, listen to the BMI episode of the podcast Maintenance Phase. I know it sounds dry, but hosts Aubrey Gordon & Michael Hobbes make everything they talk about informative and also really funny.
Taking every opportunity to talk about how fat everyone is these days, how fat people are all slowly killing themselves with laziness, and should just buck up and take a walk or something. The fat-shaming was really distracting, and completely unnecessary, not to mention based on unfounded information, in most cases.
Sexism: Consistently using the "average male body, which he basically thinks is a man the size and weight of Benedict Cumberbatch (why, though?!), as a starting point for statistics, then comparing that to "other" bodies - those larger, or shorter, or, ya know, women, the other HALF of the human population.
Racism: No acknowledgement of racial, cultural, or anthropological differences in bodies, how those bodies are studied, or how/if they receive medical treatment.
Honestly, I'm also not convinced this book was something the world needed. Bryson doesn't have the background or expertise to talk about the medical/health-related field. Unlike an author like Robert Sapolsky, who writes science books for the layperson, Bryson doesn't possess any formal training or degrees in any scientific field. He's an excellent researcher, and a skilled writer, but I prefer his autobiographical works about his travels. Stick to what you know! There are plenty of books out there about the human body by qualified individuals (many of which Bryson references).
All in all, not a great book, but I have to admit that I learned some cool facts that I will probably carry with me as party conversation starters... Did you know that when you blush, so does the inside of your stomach?