When you name your book A Short History of Nearly Everything, you run the risk of having readers ignore all of your other books, since they can’t possibly contain anywhere near the content of said book. But Bill Bryson has gambled with both reputation and financial ruin, and published yet another giant book on whatever topic strikes his fancy at the moment. Coming in at over 500 pages with endnotes galore, Bryson presents a history of the universe, starting from the pre-Big-Bang singularity and ending with a dismal view of man’s existence on this lucky planet. And dismal is the operative word. If you haven’t been scared out of your BVDs by Bryson’s taunts of killer meteorites and runaway eruptions at Yellowstone National Park, you will arrive at a state of persistent guilt for all of the evils done by, well, you.
Short History compares favorably to the World Book Encyclopedia for sheer number of historical names and facts crammed onto the printed page, with new important names appearing on nearly every page. But at least the first half of the book is interesting and relatively guilt-free. From his treatment of the universe’s not-so-humble beginnings to the inner workings of the atom, to the line of descent leading up to Homo Sapiens, Bryson introduces in fireside-chat mode the movers, shakers, and accidental tourists that make up the history of scientific discovery. A glutton for the simile, Bryson ensures that you will easily understand the size of the components of a molecule, the scope of the universe, and the various reasons why the city of Denver should possibly not exist (page 184).
Bryson makes an admirable attempt at being thorough in his science, but he is lax in filling in the historical realities sufficiently, despite including “history” in the title. His key omission is any hint that anyone in the history of the earth ever thought that a God or gods were involved in creative activity. I don’t expect the author to support the ideas conveyed in the various theories of Young-Earth or Old-Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, or Biblical Literalism. If Bryson had called all such ideas “rot,” I would have been assuaged. But for hundreds of pages on what amounts to a treatise on human origins, he pretends such views don’t even exist. Bishop Ussher does receive passing mention on pages 74-75, but only to clarify that nobody every listened to the high-church calendar cruncher.
While you will find Short History entertaining, especially when read in slow chunks over several weeks, you would be hard pressed to identify it as a history of nearly everything, when it lacks nearly everything that really counts in a history of life.