A Short History of Nearly Everything – by Bill Bryson

14 06 2019

I remember wanting to read this book about 15 years ago, and have had this copy on my shelves for many years. Unfortunately, I’m a much slower reader when it comes to non-fiction, and the two months this took me to read has easily knocked my Goodreads target for the year out of the window, but I’m glad I finally read it!

The book takes you through a scientific history and breakdown of the world (no kings and queens in here), from the depths of space, down to what makes up an atom, from cloud formations to tectonic plates to neandertal man. But it’s all done in a chatty way that’s easy to follow 98% of the time – occasionally he lists a few too many long science-y words and I found myself drifting off, but you could generally skim through to the next paragraph in those situations.

A lot of it is told from the perspective of when each thing was discovered and it was fun to learn about the chemist who insisted on tasting every element he worked with (and so ended up dying pretty young), and the one who thought you could get gold from urine, just because of the colour! He also discusses how Pluto isn’t really like the rest of the planets, because of course, this was written while it still was a planet!

One thing that in a way I found kind of reassuring was the uncertainty of nearly everything in this book. Nearly every chapter or section finished with a statement about just how little we know about the area that had just been discussed – the best one was early on: “The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite computer, surrounded by stars whose distances from us and each other we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.”

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite lines from the book:

“At an elemental level gravity is extraordinarily un-robust. Each time you pick up a book from a table or a coin from the floor you effortlessly overcome the gravitational exertion of an entire planet.”





Notes from a Small Island – by Bill Bryson

22 07 2014

From the outset this book had me cracking up audibly.

Bryson is an American writer and journalist, but lived over here for several years. This is written just before he and his wife take his family back to America so that his children can experience life there too, and so he takes one final lap of the UK using public transport. He visits both places he’s been to before and loved, and places he’s heard of and wanted to see before he leaves.

He started in the south, so I loved reading about places I know, and then gradually works northwards. He often goes off on tangents, either old anecdotes, or just thinks he loves, or finds peculiar (or both) about the British. These were probably the bits that made me laugh the most!

I really enjoyed the book, although the last few chapters did get a bit repetitive. He’d arrive in a new city by train, book into a hotel/guesthouse, try and find somewhere for dinner, and comment that all British high streets have the same shops, and some are ruining the original buildings with modern exteriors. But for the most of the book there was so much interest and humour I really did like it!

the complete notes

I’m going to take a break and read something else before reading the Big Country half of the book – but I’ll come back with that soon enough!