Bill Bryson rose to fame as a travel writer and humorist, sharing his joy at discovering the unfamiliar as he tramped about, yet just as often describing well-known locales in a way that made them seem new again.
The same could be said about his latest book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, released Tuesday by Doubleday. Here is a fresh look at everything you thought you knew about the heart and lungs, the pills you pop, your aching joints, and your attempts at a virtuous diet. Spoiler alert: Much of it remains a mystery even to scientists.
The Bryson wit is on full display, with discussion of such oddities as the function of armpit hair. Philadelphia, the site of so much medical history, makes frequent appearances. Readers will meet the Bryn Mawr College scientist who discovered the Y-chromosome and the Jefferson Hospital physician who developed the first heart-lung machine.
The author will speak here on Wednesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and we asked him a few questions in advance. This is an edited and condensed transcript of our talk.
You seem to take great delight in pointing out wacky facts about the human body that some would find off-putting, yet clearly you view them with wonder. How do you plead?
Guilty, I guess. The body is a universe of wonder, and the things I was coming across really surprised me. I couldn’t resist relating them to my audience. One of them being that we all get cancer a couple times a week. But your immune system deals with it before your cells turn into anything like a tumor, which I thought was fabulous. How could you not want to put that in a book?
On page after page, you remind your readers that our knowledge of the body and disease is alarmingly incomplete. Which aspect struck you as having the most room for improvement?
That’s a really good question. You could get a much more informed answer if you asked a medical person. Having delved into this as a journalist rather than as a qualified investigator, the thing that’s probably going to be the biggest issue is Alzheimer’s and the other dementias. And it’s one thing we can do absolutely nothing about.
Many of the early medical treatments that you describe, such as bleeding, seem barbaric to us in 2019, or at best ineffective. Which of today’s practices do you think will seem that way to people 50 years from now?
I suspect one of them will be, and I’m basing this purely on my conversations with an oncologist, that people of future generations will look at the way we treat cancer as fairly brutal and primitive. We can make people fairly sick when we treat cancer, with radiation and chemotherapy. There is collateral damage. I suspect at some point in the future, they’ll just wave some sort of magic wand over you.
In many ways, the book is a celebration of evolution. Does your adopted home of Great Britain have the same phenomenon we do here in the U.S., in which creationist groups try to undermine efforts to teach the science of evolution?
It’s very much less common over there, and I’ve never quite understood creationism. The idea of the universe and the cosmos, it seems to me if you follow the conventional scientific approach, it’s not at all incompatible with profound religious belief. Looking at it from the scientific view, it makes the universe seem even more wondrous.
Great Britain has embraced you as one of its own, and you even passed the nation’s famously difficult citizenship test. Have you ever felt anxious about living up to expectations in the mother country?
No. I’m in a strange position there. I will always be foreign. I will always be American, just by the defining quality of my existence, the same way I’m left-handed. I know them well enough to make fun of them and tease them and not be intimidated by them.
Medical oddities are sprinkled throughout the book, so it will come as no surprise to Philadelphians that the city is well represented. What impressions did you form during your visits here?
My dad was a ferocious taker of big road trips when we were growing up. He was very into American history, particularly the American Revolution and the Civil War, so we went to Gettysburg and Valley Forge. [In researching the book] I visited the Monell Chemical Senses Center. That was a fascinating place. You come away flabbergasted that there aren’t more places in the world that are studying the sense of smell. It is taken for granted, yet how miserable life is if you don’t have any sense of smell.
The publicity materials for the book describe this as a “capstone” project. That sounds awfully final. What’s next for you?
I haven’t decided exactly what I want to do, except that I’m getting old [he’s 67] and I want to slow down and get my own body in somewhat better shape now. One of the things I plan to do is take at least a year off, maybe more than that. I’d very much like to do some traveling with my wife, taking her back to some of the places I’ve most enjoyed. And new places. It amazes me how infinite in practical terms the earth is. I’ve never been to Russia or India. I’d like to correct both of those deficiencies.
Bill Bryson: “The Body: A Guide for Occupants”
Appearing 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.
Tickets: Auditorium is sold out; in-house simulcast seats still available for $6.