I know he's done other stuff in the past, but I had always thought of Bill Bryson as a travel writer. It seems to me that travel writing is a hard literary field to break out of, so it was with great trepidation that I sat down to read A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson's attempt to render the science behind our little corner of the universe in plain language. He does a reasonably good job, but there are a few problems with his execution.
The title might sound a bit self-aggrandizing, but I have to admit that this book is remarkably thorough. Everything, from the formation of the Earth through the latest advances in quantum mechanics are discussed. Important discoveries in biology, paleontology, physics, chemistry and geology are all covered. Bryson even donned his investigative journalist's hat and went out to interview scientists of interest. He obviously put a lot of work into this book and it shows. That does not necessarily a good book make, and yet his earnestness shines through in his writing style - his fascination with what he's relating is transparent and contagious, sucking the reader into this dense aspect of our world.
While the book claims to be a history of everything, that's not quite accurate. It's more of an exploration into what we know and how we know it; to this end it spends more time than one might think on the biographies of the scientists and laymen involved, touching briefly on the personal histories surrounding each discovery. The book is arranged in a loosely chronological fashion, starting with theories about the construction and age of the universe, both from the past as well as more modern times, before moving on to the origins of the earth itself and the life contained on it.
There is a problem, however. The book is BIG, weighing in at a little over a pound in hardcover. That's understandable given the subject matter, but it's frustrating that so many of the chapters (and there are a lot of them) seem to blend into one another. There seems to be an inordinately large number of stories revolving around scientists who never received credit for their discoveries, scientists who destroyed each other's reputations and scientists who were exceedingly eccentric. It could be that all scientists are in fact very, very strange, but the repetition of the fact makes the book a little hard to work through. It should be noted, though, that I read this book in a few long sittings, a fact that probably makes this quirk more noticeable.
If you're planning on diving in to this excellent (but very slightly tedious) history of stuff, I highly suggest you take your time with it and let each bit of it sink in before moving on.