Nursing Book Club

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

A delightful, informative read

If I were asked to select my favorite book of the year, it would be The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Bill Bryson is a bestselling, award-winning author whose attention to detail cannot be matched. Throw in a wry sense of humor and willingness to delve deeply into any subject and you have a fascinating read.

This book isn’t a how-to for caretakers, but rather a kind of owner’s manual and historical reference for the human body. Like most owner’s manuals, it includes far too much information to absorb in one sitting. (This is especially true if you are also reading passages aloud to someone else while you laugh until you cry.)

Bryson is most famous for his bestselling book A Short History of Nearly Everything— presumably, once his investigations had conquered all of time, looking inward was the next logical step. If you’ve read his earlier book, you’ll have a good idea what to expect from this one.

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The Body is amazingly entertaining considering how much of it consists of dry facts you’d never dream you’d want to know, such as what the world’s first recorded lithotomy was like. The lithotomy position, where a surgical patient lies on their back with their legs elevated, was originally developed for the removal of kidney stones. (Lithos is the Greek word for “stone.”)

According to Bryson, the first known lithotomy was performed with the patient’s legs thrown over his head while the surgeon extracted a stone the size of a tennis ball. Afterward, the patient saved the stone in a lacquered box and displayed it for the rest of his life.

Throughout this book, Bryson usually refrains from offering his opinions about the facts he presents unless he is sure he can make you laugh. Fortunately, he has a great flair for witty, insightful asides. Who could resist passages like this: “What is surely most curious and extraordinary about our brain is how largely unnecessary it is.

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To survive on Earth, you don’t need to be able to write music or engage in philosophy — you really only need to be able to outthink a quadruped.” How true, but I’d never thought about it that way before.

After slogging through dreary books on the costs of medical testing, the future of medicine and the insurance juggernaut, it was a welcome change of pace to pick up a book that just wants to offer you mountains of intriguing, amusing information. Not all of it is useful — think carefully about what you might do with the knowledge that “[t]he stomach of a big dog will hold twice as much as yours” — but it is consistently engaging and fun.

In the midst of wildfires, political arguments, monster storms and another round of E. coli warnings pulling romaine lettuce from supermarket shelves, The Body was a real delight to read.

The Body: A Manual for Occupants by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2019)

CHRISTINE CONTILLO, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.

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