Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #40: A Short History of Nearly Everything
I’ve mentioned Bill Bryson earlier in this series, with a brief aside that his writing can be both funny and irritating. His style is a weird admixture of Iowa farmboy plus New Hampshire upper valley snob combined with the British candy section at World Market. His observations can be piquant and amusing, but there’s such a dose of grumpy old man, such a reluctance to inhabit the world as it is rather than how it was that he can be exhausting.
His best stuff, then, isn’t the treacle-and-curmudgeon nostalgia bits where he walks or drives around talking about how much places and people suck now. It’s when he’s going places he hasn’t been and doing things he hasn’t done that his skill as a writer comes into full bloom. Australia, the Appalachian Trail. Even better is when he abandons travelogues entirely in exchange for a layman’s tour of human experience. His book on the evolution of domiciles is a decent example of this, but far and away his best sustained effort is A Short History of Nearly Everything.
In this volume, Bryson treats us to accessibly-written windows into space and time and science. I know I learn more each time I read it. And that’s the mark of a truly excellent book.