Bill Bryson versus the Scireadr

A Short History of Nearly Everything coverScireadr will have its first meet­ing tomor­row night. We’ll be dis­cuss­ing A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I’ve never taken part in a book club like this before, so I’m pre­par­ing. I don’t have answers. I don’t know if I need answers, what I need are ques­tions so I’m mak­ing some notes that I can pick up with my phone tomor­row night. Feel free to add ques­tions or com­ments below.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself is the title of one of Bryson’s books. He’s a travel writer so he’s used to writ­ing look­ing in from the out­side. Does he do that here? He cer­tainly travels around and he doesn’t pro­fess unique expert­ise. At the same time the intro­duc­tion seems to be him draw­ing the reader into a sci­en­tific­ally informed world. Is he halfway between the two?

For com­par­ison the best part of Down Under, which has another title I for­get — it’s the Australian one — is where he describes the stro­matolites. It’s strong prose and if I had read that before ASHONE I wouldn’t have been at all sur­prised that he wrote a sci­ence book. Not only this he also laments the ignor­ance of some of the tour­ists who come out to this place. Is he Being A Scientist or is he Not Being A Tourist?

Aside from whether he’s report­ing from inside or out­side sci­ence, how does he por­tray sci­ence? It’s a sys­tem that has given us many things, but it can also be used for per­sonal gain or harm. How does he tackle the after­math of tech­no­lo­gical advances that lead to pol­lu­tion or birth deform­it­ies? Does Bryson have sci­entific her­oes and villains?

Do you recog­nise the sci­entific cul­ture he por­trays? Do feel you are inside or out­side that culture?

Is there a cent­ral theme to the book? Do you need to read the chapters in order? Do the earlier chapters add any­thing to the later chapters? If not, is this really about Science or about Sciences? Does the theme (or lack of it) impact on the intent of the book to explore how we know what we know?

This is his per­sonal jour­ney, is it related to your life? To the lives of the read­ers of the book in gen­eral. Do the con­tents mat­ter to me, or is this an oppor­tun­ity to live a vicari­ous life without per­sonal con­sequences. He can visit Hammerfest without it really mak­ing any dif­fer­ence to my life. Do his obser­va­tions on Geology or Chemistry have a sim­ilar lack of impact bey­ond enjoy­ment? What did you think of the end­ing? Was there a proper end­ing or did the book just stop? Do you think that there were themes that were pulled together in the final chapter?

It’s a book about sci­ence. Is it a sci­ence book? Is this a col­lec­tion of anec­dotes that is passing itself off as data? Is it a data heavy book that’s passing itself off as anec­dote. How import­ant are the notes in the book? Are there any that you’d want to fol­low up for your own reading?

Is it (or is it not) a sci­ence book because of the lan­guage? How does it dif­fer (or not) from sci­entific pub­lic­a­tions? Does the use of lan­guage work? Are details sac­ri­ficed for a one-liner? Even if it is not a sci­entific pub­lic­a­tion is that a prob­lem for the book, or could it point to a prob­lem with the usual stand­ard of English in Science?

Is the book con­tro­ver­sial? Are there any obvi­ous con­tro­ver­sies miss­ing? Is that a prob­lem, or does it mean he avoids get­ting bogged down in long-running argu­ments that gen­er­ate more heat than light? Can you simply ignore polit­ical con­tro­ver­sies that draw on sci­entific ideas? Does Bryson have a polit­ical axe to grind?

What’s the best bit of the book? What sur­prised you? What do you still find hard to believe, or are still scep­tical about? It’s a his­tory. Usually that means look­ing at the past, but ori­gin­ally the Greek word Historia meant Investigation. That’s why Natural History isn’t always about anim­als in the past. Is this a back­ward look­ing book. Does it look for­ward too? Are you plan­ning to take any of these ideas for­ward yourself?

Was the book what you were expect­ing? Has it changed any of your ideas?

(Questions aided an awful lot by LitLover)


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.