Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

I remember reading Bill Bryson’s Down Under as a tween, and while my brain has written over most of the actual content, I do remember howling with laughter. I figured I could do with a bit of a giggle after The Divine Comedy, so I went with A Short History Of Nearly Everything as my next undertaking from The List.

I wasn’t sure where to find A Short History Of Nearly Everything when I was trawling through my favourite secondhand bookstore. Would it be under History? Science? Reference? Ultimately, I found it buried in the miscellaneous no-mans-land shelf, just below “Philosophy”, which seemed fitting. I thanked my lucky stars that it was a paperback – this book is a monster, and I’ve seen a few hardcover copies that could be used for deadlifts.

One of my favourite things about secondhand books is the inscriptions you find in the front. This one reads: “July ’04 – Dear Rodger, The best present I could find for the Man who knows (nearly) everything! Thanks for your time, encouragement… and straight talking. Good luck with everything and I will see you soon! Lyn x”. Shout out to straight-talking Rodger, wherever he is. I hope he finished the book and (now knowing everything) no longer needs it.


On with the review: A Short History Of Nearly Everything does exactly what it says on the label. It serves as a crash-course introduction to most areas of scientific inquiry, covering off everything from the Big Bang to evolution to quantum mechanics. It sounds like it should be a snooze-fest, I know, but it’s written in a folksy, conversational style that most of the general public will find easily accessible. Proof in the pudding: it was one of the best-selling pop-science books of 2005.

Its big selling point is, of course, that it is Science for the Everyman – but don’t be fooled! There’s some shit in here that will fuck with your thinking meat. I thought I’d burn through it really quickly, given Bryson’s famously-readable voice, but I found I had to go back and re-read a lot of passages a few times over in order to truly wrap my head around their meaning. It’s hard to comprehend, for instance, the true size of the solar system (it turns out those diagrams in your textbooks at school were a lie). Fortunately, Bryson breaks up the hard parts with gossipy tid-bits about the history of science: who slept with whom, who hated whom, who stole ideas and passed them off as their own. He also manages to work in a few laughs.

“Our tolerance for plutonium is zero: there is no level at which it is not going to make you want to lie down.”

More than anything, Bryson makes it abundantly clear how little we actually know – even about things that we think we know. Fascinating stuff!




Haters on the internet have pointed out some factual errors and inaccuracies (of course), but in large part these are solely due to new discoveries made, or reclassifications, since publication. A Short History Of Nearly Everything is over a decade old, for fuck’s sake – I think we can forgive Bryson for saying that Pluto is a planet.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything is perfect for anyone who finds themselves in need of fun facts that can be delivered smugly, over a water cooler or knock-off beers. I will definitely read it again, just for fun, and so it gets the coveted status of Recommended here at Keeping Up With The Penguins.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Short History Of Nearly Everything:

  • “too technical for my 95 year old mother” – SQ
  • “To be Terse; Good!” – Samoa Tech
  • “Not a huge fan of books. You’ve got to make it interesting to get me to read it. And even though I recently purchase a terrific new two-pack of 2.0 readers right here on Amazon for dirt cheap, I still can’t read this tiny little type. This book tries to jam pack very large quantities of words into a few pounds of paper. It’s unreadable.
    I am an author and despite my dislike of books in general, I bought this to see what the bestselling authors were up to. I was very disappointed. It’s like going to a restaurant where they care nothing about quality as long as you feel fat.
    Keep writing Bill! Or hiring people to do it for you! Keep jamming words into best selling books! People seem to love them, and I think they sometimes feel smart just knowing someone might see the book hanging around in their living room.
    I WOULD recommend, on the other hand, a good Oliver Stone documentary. If you want to learn things.” – Mark Urso
  • “This is probably a great book but I am not smart enough t read it. Seriously Im not trying to be funny…….. and Im suppose dto be kinda smart.” – michael s wolf

 

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6 Comments

  1. Bill Bryson a writing hero, a man who manages to be erascible, opinionated and yet also well loved. What shocks me is how long I have been reading him.

    It shows the great benefit of humour, we can forgive everything whilst we’re laughing.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      July 26, 2018 at 11:40 AM

      Oh goodness, yes! I can’t imagine anyone else could have made a romp through so much history and science so entertaining!!

  2. I find science fascinating. I try to stay up on the latest developments in a few fields such as physics, astronomy, etc. This book sounds like a great general introduction.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      July 27, 2018 at 8:18 AM

      Absolutely, Brian – even if you’re well acquainted with history and science and you’ve got the basics down, I guarantee there’d be a fun anecdote or two in here that you hadn’t heard before, and you’ll get a few laughs either way. 🙂

  3. Bill Bryson is one of my favorites. I cannot lie, though. I owned this book and was scared by how giant it was. I love Bryson’s writing, but sometimes, you just have to be in the mood. The Thunderbolt Kid and A Walk In The Woods were my fav. In A Sunburned Country was good but just a tad dry.

    ALSO, I could not figure out for the life of me why I wasn’t getting your blog updates in my WP reader….and now I bow my head. I swear I was following you–but alas, I wasn’t…. I blame this on WP; it’s been so buggy! I accidentally dropped three bloggers in my app the other day when trying to update notifications. ALL fixed, for now! Love, Christine The Uncorked Librarian

    • ShereeKUWTP

      August 2, 2018 at 3:40 PM

      Awww, don’t be put off by its gargantuan proportions – it’s so engaging, even if it does require a little mental gymnastics. And thank you so much for following, doll! I’m so glad I discovered you on Pinterest, I’m loving your stuff too!! No need to apologise for WP bugs, they get us all at times, damn gremlins 😉 x

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