Abridged history lesson
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Date: 22 September, 2003

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'this is Bryson playing to his strengths - digging out wild, funny, and disreputable tales that make the world seem a more colourful place'

A Short History of Nearly Everything by
Bill Bryson

Bryson's quest to understand everything is a good, but lengthy, read says Steve Tomkins

I have a love-hate relationship with Bill Bryson (though he may not be aware of it). His writing is clever, warm, informative, fascinating and very funny, whether it's about travel, language or sneaker technology.

Admittedly if I read one more report of his visit to a museum where the exhibits were most diverting, I shall probably complain to whoever's listening again, but we all have our weaknesses.

The hate is simply the resentment of a poor struggling writer for a man whose career is to go on nice holidays, write down what happens, and then roll about in his money. A friend suggested I have an irrational insane jealousy of him, but there's nothing irrational about it.

At least he's had to do some proper work to write A Short History of Nearly Everything. It's a radical new departure for him. The title could be open to various interpretations, and in fact the book doesn't seem entirely sure what it's supposed to be. The flyleaf tells us it is Bryson's 'quest to understand everything that has happened from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization - how we got from there, being nothing at all, to here, being us.'

But if this is his quest he doesn't really share his discoveries with us, because it isn't a book of science. Later we're told, 'It's not so much about what we know, as about how we know what we know.'

In fact it's really a history of science, or more accurately of scientists. It is the stories of the men and women who discovered what makes the universe tick.

Which is not a bad thing, because this is Bryson playing to his strengths - digging out wild, funny, and disreputable tales that make the world seem a more colourful place. Scientists present rich pickings. The average character here is brilliant, driven, and as mad as a moose in flares.

The greatest is the aristocrat Henry Cavandish. So shy that he was incapable of eye contact or conversation, he discovered such things as hydrogen and the weight of the earth without bothering to tell anybody.

There are chapters on quarks, dinosaurs, relativity, tectonic plates, atoms - everything really - and the folk who found them. You are left with a haunting sense of the injustice of life - so many brilliant people whose discoveries we depend upon today died penniless and unknown, and still are unknown. Well, now some of them are rescued in a small way.

It's an splendid though extremely long read - not one word of the title is true really. Fans of Bryson might well feel that he is being a little too serious and respectable however, and wish he would let himself off the leash a bit. Mercifully few museums though.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, Doubleday, 500pp, £10