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I like big books.

A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson I think I've been extremely lucky with book picks lately. My last few were all five stars. Of course that could mean that I'm a push over and not a critical reader at all, but I like to think otherwise. With that in mind I tried very hard to find something - anything really - to fault Bryson with as I read through his Short History of Nearly Everything and after a few days of thinking have come up with only paltry and superficial nitpicking that probably isn't fair to Bryson in the slightest.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is nothing if not ambitious. Bryson manages to tell an absolutely engaging story out of a host of disparate -ologies, facts, anecdotes and historical narrative. Who thought geology and (more importantly) the wizened old English gentry that founded the science themselves could be so exciting? What Bryson succeeds fantastically at, in my view at least, is placing the most amazing scientific discoveries of humanity in the brief time we've been here in all of it's rather glorious, conflict-strewn, serendipitous, and improbable context. The drier sections of science are supplemented with impressive historical and biographical narratives that really makes you feel like you're reading an encyclopedia of human discovery and ingenuity written in a stream of consciousness style that jumps from one amazing era or topic of discovery to the next. Bryson is not a scientist, he's a travelogue writer, and a good one at that, if his writing here is anything to judge him by. His narrative is witty, funny, and personable enough to make you forget that you're reading cutting-edge science from a variety of fields. This book is easily approachable by anybody, scientifically oriented or not and I think, no matter your level of sophistication, you won't be able to escape a feeling of awe at the absolute improbability and mystery of our existence in the universe.

The sweep of the narrative is daunting, and every line drips with information that begs re-pondering and the book is certainly re-readable. In fact, I'd probably advise you to read the book in small increments over a long period of time so you can properly digest it all. When I re-read it, I plan to do so by section and by topic as a starting point for further studies with pen and paper handy so I don't forget things. In that respect, A Short History is very much like a textbook of everything. The real gems are to be found in the bibliography. Bryson admits to a startling lack of knowledge of basic science that prompted him to write the book in the first place, and he certainly did a lot of homework before setting pen to paper and he does an awesome job of pointing you in the right direction for further reading.

What faults did I find with the book? This short history of nearly everything leaves out the scientific and mathematical accomplishments of non-Western peoples entirely. Astronomical leaps and bounds discovered by the ancient Egyptians, cartographic and geographic advancements of the Chinese, even the mathematical advancements of the Arabs upon which the European scientific revolution heavily depended upon are nowhere mentioned. Perhaps this is a touch disingenuous for most of the major modern discoveries that impact the narrative Bryson delivers naturally fell to Westerners, with particular favor being shown to the English and to Americans. Big Bang cosmology, the unravelling of DNA and advancements in radiocarbon dating and paleoanthropology that have led to a (somewhat) better picture of the evolution of humanity have all required a degree of technological advancement denied to early and pre-modern peoples anyway, so I concede that the criticism is shallow indeed. Making a note of every small discovery or advancement along the way to the big picture would be a monstrous undertaking indeed, and again, what Bryson is concerned with, even though he uses a mind-boggling slew of facts throughout his narrative, is the bigger picture.

Other than that, I have nothing but fantastic things to say about Bryson's work. If I had to distill my feelings about it down to a single line, I'd say: You know you have a great book on your hands when you spend two hours pouring through the bibliography wanting to find out more about everything the author introduces you to.