Anyone who has read a popular pop-science book in the last ten years will experience a sense of dejÃ vu when reading Bryson’s latest venture. That is, dejÃ vu in fast-forward. For this book, aside from the odd travel to a lab or a museum where he might have a perfunctory chat with a scientist, is little more than a bluffer’s guide of facts about the Earth and the Universe. The only thing that elevates it from this lowly place is Bryson’s brutal and desolating conclusions. Human life is extremely precarious, this is what he discovers at every turn: don’t get too comfortable.
An amazing number of numerical facts and thumbnail biographies litter its 500-odd pages. Despite its size, it is truly as condensed as is possible. And, to his credit, he does refer the reader, in a hundred pages of footnotes, to all of his sources. Also, on the plus side of the ledger, Bryson is good at locating the areas of doubt and absolute incomprehension. If you want to know what we don’t know, this book is a great place to start.
Nevertheless, despite all of the astronomical facts bombarding and benumbing us, reading A Short History of Nearly Everything is an incredibly shallow experience. The reason for this is that Bryson is completely uncultured. Perhaps this is what has given him such massive popularity. There are no references to anything of any literary or cultural value. No Shakespeare, no Bible, no Morrissey, no Nietzsche; nothing that might problematize his thought. His journalese just keeps chugging on in its endearing fashion, like a toy-train driver at a theme park: he is too absorbed to care about the roller coaster behind him.