I have to laugh, reading the reviews on Amazon.com. The majority of them are glowing—indeed, this book has garnered so much critical acclaim as to win the Aventis prize in 2004, a rare feat for a travel writer—except for those that fall into one of two categories, namely twits who say “If I wanted a book on Physics and 13th Century History, I would have bought one. Title is very misleading.”1 or irate creationists who take issue with Bryson’s decidedly secular treatment of the subject.
I read A Short History… when it first debuted in Q3 2004. I’d been an avid Bryson fan ever since I read his enthralling history of American English. Given his propensity for either travel writing or linguistics, I was a little surprised to see him cover such a remote topic as science. However, he delivered as he always does.
The edition I just read is the special illustrated edition, which expands the book a bit with either portraits of dead white men in the margins, pullquotes, or full-page illustrations/photos of the topic at hand. I can’t say that it’s necessarily worth upgrading if you already own the original, but in some cases the illustrations really do serve their purpose.
Bryson cuts a wide swath through the varying disciplines of science. He talks about cosmology, particle physics, Newtonian physics, quantum physics, chemistry, biology, oceanography, meteorology, anthropology, volcanology, astronomy, archæology, and a whole lot more for whose proper term I am unaware. It’s a wholly ambitious work, and of course it’s not necessarily textbook material—you won’t find any formulæ or diagrams—but it’s some of the most interesting reading I’ve ever encountered. He uses his typical array of “gee-whiz” facts, anecdotes, interviews, and meaty exposition to weave a book that reveals Bryson not only as a consummate educator, but with a penchant for the narrative, as well.
- This is an actual quote from Amazon’s customer reviews. It boggles the mind.[↩]