A Brief History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

I really like Bill Bryson’s writing voice. It’s wry, it’s distinctive, it’s colloquial without being overly dated.  I was a little bit nervous about this book, because I tend to like Bryson’s specifically travel books better than anything else (I have not gotten all the way through Thunderbolt Kid, for instance – although I haven’t tried his Shakespeare book yet). But I quite enjoyed this book, which, if you don’t know, is all about the history of science. Every science – chemistry, physics, geology, biology, anthropology, paleontology, astronomy, etc. – is described from the beginning of the Enlightenment to the beginning of the 21st century. It’s like a travel book through the history of science.

One of the things that reading books like this does to me is make me want to read more books like this. I walked into Blackwell’s today and had to restrain myself from buying an anthology of science writing. I also had to restrain myself from adding lots of obscure public-domain science books to my list, and looking up ways that I could get extra degrees in things like chemistry or bacterial biology or astronomy or even just mathematics. Books like this also make me want to write books like this: I have at least one travel book started in my head now. The only problem is that my writing keeps sounding like Bryson, and not so much like me yet.

Because that’s another thing that reading books like this does to me: it makes me want to know everything about everything. The world doesn’t know a lot about bacteria? I should study it! It’s a part of my whole ‘searching-for-focus’ thing that doesn’t work well because I’m interested in EVERYTHING. I want to find a niche that I can fill; unfortunately the niches that are out there don’t quite mesh with my current education or experience.

I did notice quite a few references in the book to amateurs – people who were in other fields and did science almost as a dedicated hobby, and ended up making amazing discoveries. I don’t know how feasible that would be today. Most of the things that I am interested in (genetics, for example, or astronomy) require equipment that I don’t have access to at this point, and I don’t know how I would be able to get access to it. Maybe I’ll become a mathematical ‘celebrated amateur’ instead. Or a (semi-trained) linguist. (Or maybe I’ll just stick to being a voracious reader of everything that I can get my hands on.)

Overall I liked the book, obviously. Also, I figured out how to read footnotes on the ereader, which is a plus. Science is fascinating, and Bryson makes the history of science accessible. I probably won’t remember some of the names and facts in a week or so – it’s not a textbook, and I wasn’t taking notes or anything – but the love of it definitely will stay with me.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (Science)

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