Bill Bryson versus the Scireadr
Scireadr 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)