Bill Bryson is witty and urbane. Wait‚Ä¶no‚Ä¶strike that. If I wanted to begin an article with a sentence more obvious I could have chosen; ‚ÄúNapoleon had a large ego,‚Äù or ‚ÄúMarilyn Monroe was sexy,‚Äù or ‚ÄúMillard Fillmore was not the most illustrious and exciting president of the nineteenth century,‚Äù but I believe those would have been my only options.
Yes, Bill Bryson is witty and urbane, as anyone who has had a modicum of experience with Bryson would be sure to agree. However, what makes Bryson so alluring is not his aloofness but his accessibility. He is not so much an Oscar Wilde ‚Äì jeering and jibing with a cavalier disregard of the common-man ‚Äì but a Mark Twain ‚Äì having grown-up and worked amongst us commoners but simply had the enticing ability to quip endlessly and interestingly upon the experience.
For those who are unfamiliar with the man, Bill Bryson is usually known as a ‚Äútravel writer.‚Äù And perhaps, that gives up the man right there. Travel writers are certainly of a singular ilk. They have humdrum, cotton experiences that are spun into a golden fleece of pithy prose. We all travel ‚Äì and many of us may live in a place that is visited annually by frothing hordes of gap-mouthed tourists ‚Äì but we are often left at a loss when asked to tell anyone anything very interesting about our journeys, much less where we live. ‚ÄúOh, was it pretty?‚Äù one of our friends may ask us in a fury of excitement. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve heard it‚Äôs pretty. I bet it was pretty. I wanna know absolutely everything about your trip.‚Äù Most of us, with only a casual linguistic ability that is intermittently punctuated by literary brilliance brought out by referees making calls against the home team, are left with little to say when placed in such a hot seat. ‚ÄúYes, it was pretty,‚Äù we say, with the depth of our verbal facility being expressed by the emphasis which we so carefully add.
Such verbal paralysis is anathema to Bryson – and, for that matter Paul Theroux, Tony Horwitz, Hampton Sides, and many other travel writers. Their job is to make these things, these places, interesting, even if they are visiting, in the most generous of interpretations, the Millard Fillmore of destinations. Bryson claims to have encountered such difficulties brought on by uninteresting destinations such as the Appalachian Trail and Cleveland, Ohio, but we readers would never know. Bryson is always interesting, and his books are always a pleasure. But, if Bryson was to set himself to tackling a subject of immense inherent appeal ‚Äì such as, say, the history of everything ‚Äì he would certainly succeed. Possibly with so much triumph that he would take all previously things called ‚Äúinteresting‚Äù and turn them into, well, Millard Fillmore.
And thankfully he has. [A Short History of Nearly Everything](http://www.symbolicorder.com/store/us/product/0767908171.htm) is a fantastically interesting, humorous, and endearing account of one normal, albeit fantastically erudite, man‚Äôs attempt to obtain an understanding of the scientific nature of the universe. If it sounds like a daunting task, well it is. But reading his account of the process is anything but daunting. He enticingly begins the book like a guidebook, which, in some sense, it most certainly is:
‚ÄúWelcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn‚Äôt easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.
To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It‚Äôs an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.‚Äù
And so Bryson has begun his quest and asks you to come along for the ride.
The ride is long, intricate, and convoluted, but oh-so satisfying. Moving from the Big Bang to the creation of modern man is not a quick jaunt down the block to pick up a loaf of bread. And it certainly wasn‚Äôt so for Bryson. Despite being ostensibly not a travel book, Bryson certainly put in a more than requisite amount of leg work in tandem with the mental marathon he had set himself to running. Finding out means asking questions. For the nascent scientific mind rooted in a liberal arts, I-got-into-this-field-because-there-were-significantly-fewer -right-answers, background many of these questions may not be on the cutting edge of scientific perspicacity. ‚ÄúOkay, so the protein synthesis process has two main steps, I got that, but what the hell is a protein and how is it related to the steak I had last night and the Atkins diet I am on?‚Äù Therefore, Bryson, predicting such questions, decided the best way to deal with them was to pester the scientists themselves. Not only would this give him a book with a human interest element, but he could actually engage the scientists in a far more intellectually cordial manner than wading through science books and journals. Hell, even the abstracts of those things can send someone sprinting for the nearest biography of Millard Fillmore.
Of course, textbooks written for junior high students are no better. I have often marveled at the unheralded ability of textbook writers to anesthetize even the most arrestingly interesting thing, such as the Civil War, by recounting it in the type of droll, uneventful prose usually reserved for stereo instructions and life-insurance policies. Fortunately, what those writers achieved in pure boredom, Bryson has dutifully countermanded.
To Bryson, as important as finding out ‚Äúwhat happened‚Äù is how we know, or think we know ‚Äúwhat happened.‚Äù For most of us, science ‚Äì like plumbing, brain surgery, computer programming, snooker, and Australian Rules Football ‚Äì has always remained squarely in the realm of the arcane. ‚ÄúOkay, I‚Äôll take your word for it,‚Äù is usually our only recourse. However, Bryson‚Äôs book achieves a, at least partial, demystification of science. He has pulled the curtain aside and revealed that the great wizard is simply a dorky, old man on a university campus who is forming hypotheses, testing theories and is more than willing to tell you all about it. In fact, in some way or another, that is how it has always been. What is truly remarkable about the demystification of something is that, afterwards, it becomes partially yours. The Catholic Church will always only belong to the Cardinals, Bishops and Popes precisely because is mandates a certain level of inscrutability. Bryson shows us that science need not be likewise ‚Äì belonging only to the chemists, physicists, and biologists. It actually can be for everyone.
If you, like me, are an unapologetic intellectual dilettante, this book is multi-course feast of cognitive sumptuousness. Geology, meteorology, cosmology, astronomy, biology, bio-chemistry, particle physics, quantum mechanics, relativity, microbiology, anthropology, all of these subjects receive dutiful treatment from Bryson. Take this wonderfully pithy vagueness from the introduction: ‚ÄúThis is a book about how it happened ‚Äì in particular how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also some of what happened in between and since. That is a great deal to cover, of course, which is why the book is called A Short History of Nearly Everything, even though it isn‚Äôt really. It couldn‚Äôt be. But with luck by the time we finish it will feel as if it is.‚Äù It certainly does feel as if it is ‚Äì even without a chapter on Millard Fillmore.