Five Star review, originally posted here on November 8, 2014.
For whatever reason, I didn’t actually bother looking into what this book was before I started reading it, and I just assumed it was a history book by Bill Bryson, which sounded pretty damn sweet. I got pretty nervous, though, when I started reading and realized it was a science book, because I suck at science. Oh no! I suck at science! And this book is hella long! I’ll never make it!
I don’t know what “real” science-minded people think of this book (I saw a couple low-star reviews claim there were lots of errors), but this book seems to be tailor-made to people like me: People who find science super interesting and really really really wish they were good at it, but could just never seem to wrap their brains around the concepts in science class. Bryson starts his book by pointing out that he is, basically, just like me. He’s sitting on a plane, and he goes, “Holy shit, I don’t know jack about jack! But wouldn’t it be nice if I ever managed to understand it all?” Yes, Mr. Bryson, it sure would.
Writing from the standpoint of an adult who has to start from scratch (just like me!) means even the more complicated concepts made sense to us newbies. And, whenever it seemed to venture out into holy-crap-this-is-over-my-head territory, Bryson makes a joke and basically says, “Yeah, I know, this stuff is hard and doesn’t make sense to most of us,” and then I feel better.
To me it also helped that Bryson told the stories behind the science, not just the science itself. And I don’t just mean “Marie Curie discovered this and she was from this place and this is when she lived.” I mean he dug up every crazy story about feuding dinosaur hunters and eccentric recluses who electro-zapped their wives and parties where people gathered just to suck on some laughing gas and get loopy in public. These are fantastic stories, and Bryson is fantastic at telling them.
The main reason this book works, however, and especially why it managed to hold my interest for all gajillion pages despite being on a topic with which I struggle, is Bryson himself. He attacks every subject with an informative humor that brings this stuff to life without ever seeming too scary, boring, or repetitive. It’s a tough job to pull off, and this book (along with his Shakespeare biography, where he manages to fill a whole book with amazing information despite the confession that we don’t actually know anything about Shakespeare) are all you need as proof that Bryson is a legitimately gifted writer.