(Audio)Book Talk: A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING, by Bill Bryson

a short history of nearly everything bryson
Abridged audiobook read by the author / Unabridged audio read by Richard Matthews
Broadway Books (2004), trade paper (ISBN 076790818X / 9780275980528)
Nonfiction: science, 544 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio, 2003, ISBN 9780739302958; Audible ASIN B00009OYYM)
My first experience with Bill Bryson was 2010’s Home: A Short History of Private Life, and I knew it wouldn’t be my last. I also knew it wasn’t Bryson’s first experience with “short history,” and when I took my long-overdue first steps into the land of audiobooks a few months later, his own reading of his 2003 work A Short History of Nearly Everything was one of my earliest purchases. Audiobooks don’t tend to languish in TBR Purgatory for as long as print and ebooks do, as a rule, but it took me almost two and a half years to get around to that one. Honestly, the premise seemed just a bit intimidating, as you might imagine from that title–“nearly everything” covers a LOT.
However, once I finally dove in, I was disappointed and chagrined–not by the book, but by the discovery that, as an audiobook noob, I’d purchased an abridged version. I was so not disappointed and chagrined by the book itself that I remedied the situation in the most appropriate manner: I downloaded the full, unabridged version, and began listening to it immediately after I finished the short one. The full version is not read by the author–which may be another reason I passed it up originally–but that turned out not to be all that much of a drawback, as it allowed me to focus more on Bryson as a writer. (I have to admit that Bryson’s voice as an audio narrator is a bit unexpected and something of an acquired taste, and although I’m mostly on board with it, I appreciated hearing his words read by Richard Matthews–more than I expected to, if I’m being honest.)
A Short History of Nearly Everything does not misrepresent itself; it ranges from theories on the origin of the universe and how long ago that (probably) really happened, to the structure of atoms and cells and the most basic, essential foundations of life and its evolution on Earth (which is all we Earthlings are really able to study at this point.) The book was originally published in 2003 and is therefore missing a decade of scientific developments, including the identification of the Higgs boson and the demotion of Pluto from “planet” rank. However, I think that’s an inherent hazard of writing history on any topic, let alone science, without confining the discussion to “historical” time periods, and I don’t think that the book suffers for it. Bryson’s emphasis on the often obscure people and personalities who have developed and documented our understanding of the physical world, and his meanders down narrative sidetracks for further exploration, make it all work.
Having now spent more time with A Short History of Nearly Everything than just about any audiobook I’ve read yet, I would actually recommend the approach I took by accident. While Bryson is not a scientist and his work is very approachable, the abridged audio serves nicely as a highlight reel, introducing most of the key names, events, and ideas that are explored more fully in the long version. Even in plain language, there are some complicated concepts here, and if you’re more oriented to processing information visually, there’s an added level of challenge to reading this by ear; keeping the first listen in mind as a detailed outline for the second reading helped me a lot. (It also helped that there’s overlap in the material here with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which premiered while I was listening toA Short History of Nearly Everything, and which we’re still watching; you could make a nice little self-instruction course out of this combination.)
I’ve now read Bryson on a variety of subjects, It seems to me that he’s one of our best contemporary storytellers…and he can make an engaging, compelling story out of just about anything. It’s a rare gift. The way that A Short History of Nearly Everything made me recognize, appreciate, and rejoice over just how remarkable it is to be alive–in this here and now, with the knowledge we have and the potential for so much more–may be an even rarer one.
book talk 3rsblog

Rating: Book and Audio, 4 of 5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson trekked the Appalachian Trail — well, most of it. In In A Sunburned Country, he confronted some of the most lethal wildlife Australia has to offer. Now, in his biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand — and, if possible, answer — the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.

From Chapter One:

“NO MATTER HOW hard you try you will never be able to grasp just how tiny, how spatially unassuming, is a proton. It is just way too small. 

“A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this i can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the very least. 

“Now imagine if you can (and of course you can’t) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous. Now pack into that tiny, tiny space about an ounce of matter. Excellent. You are ready to start a universe.”

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