Saturday, December 4, 2010

Day 4: An All-Bryson Day

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Bill Bryson's books. Today I'm going to cheat a little bit and mention three different books for Day 4 of Broadway Books' 24 Days of Books. But it's all Bryson, so I don't think it's cheating too much. And any one -- or all of them! -- would make great holiday gifts.
The first book I'll talk about is At Home: A Short History of Private Life. This book is Bryson along the lines of A Short History of Nearly Everything and Mother Tongue, rather than the Bryson of the often-hysterical-always-amusing memoirs like A Walk in the Woods, The Lost Continent, and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

In his newest book, Bryson walks from room to room in his family Victorian parsonage in England and uses each as a launching pad to talk about, well, just about anything that interests him: hygiene, fashion, cuisine, architecture, drinking, nutrition, the Eiffel Tower, the telephone, insect bites, furniture, plumbing -- you get my drift. Bryson is known for his inquisitiveness and his fondness for research. In fact, he was recently spotted in our very own Central Library doing just that! This book is a perfect showcase for his work, written in his customarily engaging and entertaining prose style.

When you're finished reading this book you'll know that Thomas Jefferson was responsible for introducing the french fry to the American palate (damn him, I say!), and that Benjamin Franklin was partial to taking "air baths," in which he would bask naked in front of an open upstairs window. "This can't have got him any cleaner, but it seems to have done him no harm and it must have at least given the neighbors something to talk about." And you will have a greater understanding of the complex geometry and engineering involved in building a functional staircase.

Bryson is also responsible for another recently published book, Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society, which he edited. In honor of the Royal Society's 350th anniversary -- having been established on "a damp weeknight" in London in 1660 as a "Colledge for Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning" -- Bryson solicited essays from a collective of science writers on what we know today and what we're still looking for.

The book opens with an introduction by Bryson, followed by an essay by novelist Margaret Atwood on the mad scientists of literature and film. And then the book gets a bit more serious, including James Gleick tracing the birth of modern science, Richard Dawkins writing on the world-changing legacy of Darwin and evolutionary science, Neal Stephenson writing on the strange feud between Newton and Leibniz, Richard Holmes writing on man's first success at flight, Henry Petroski writing on engineering, and Martin Rees (president of the Royal Society from December 2005 to December 2010) looking forward to the future of science in the twenty-first century and beyond. In all, the book offers twenty-two essays. It's lusciously produced, with creamy pages and lots of photographs and illustrations.

Finally, the third in my Bryson picks for the holidays is the special illustrated edition of A Short History of Nearly Everything. Originally published (sans illustrations) in 2003, and in a hardcover illustrated edition in 2005, the illustrated version has just been published in paperback. The book covers physics, astronomy,biology, chemistry, geology -- pretty much everything, like the title says. Only now it comes with full-color artwork and photos -- both contemporary and historical. The Seattle Times said this about Bryson's book: "A highly readable mix of historical anecdotes, gee-whiz facts, adept summarization, and gleeful recounts of the eccentricities of great scientists. It moves so fast that it's science on a toboggan."

Anyone with an inquisitive nature and a fondness for facts presented with wit and eloquence would likely be thrilled to get one of these books.

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