A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Bill Bryson wrote his acclaimed A Short History of Nearly Everything, published in 2003, with one goal in mind: to make the fascinating history of planet Earth accessible to those outside the scientific community. Exploring themes such as astronomy, evolution, geology, and physics, A Short History of Nearly Everything aims to do exactly what the title implies—chronicle the natural history of planet Earth in a single book. Despite the seemingly insane magnitude of this project, Bryson's study became a best seller, achieving popularity as both an educational tool and a fun read. Due to its lighthearted and manageable style and universally fascinating subject material, A Short History of Nearly Everything has made fundamental aspects of science available to audiences with no scientific background whatsoever—which was exactly what Bryson set out to do.

1. Bryson wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything in protest of the textbooks he hated as a kid.

Growing up, Bryson found it extremely difficult to become engaged with the material he was studying in school. He blamed the textbooks more than anything and lamented how they presented interesting information in a format that was utterly dry and unstimulating. Bryson described his early experiences with textbooks, noting:

It was as if [the writer] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable ... There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting.

When Bryson wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything, he wanted to make the history of planet Earth more entertaining. He also wanted to explicitly draw connections among all aspects of the world's formation—which critics have noted is quite an undertaking. This has led A Short History of Nearly Everything to be classified as part of an academic field known as Big History, which traces historical themes far beyond one single time period in the natural or human historical record.

2. Bryson believes evolution may be more magical than biblical creationism.

Bryson stated that evolutionary science enhances a spiritual view on the world and shouldn't be understood as contradictory to religion. He believes that, when viewed within a spiritual framework, evolution is a "more magical" explanation for the existence of life than biblical creationism. Bryson defended this stance, claiming:

If you're a spiritual person, I think the scientific explanation for the universe, and how it got the way it is—the fact that it's so vast and so ancient, and in all of this amazing void of space, as far as we know, the only living things are us on this little planet—actually makes God seem more majestic.

3. Bryson faired quite poorly in science classes as a child.

Although his academic career would lead him to chronicle "nearly everything," Bryson's days in school weren't his finest. Bryson attended school in Iowa at a time when the public schools' science curriculum was, in his eyes, lacking. He found the textbooks to be painfully boring, and he earned failing grades in many of his math and science classes. Looking back, Bryson feels as though he "missed out" on school, blaming both his own disinterest as well as the poor presentation of information. He explained:

A lot of that was my fault in that I just wasn't that interested, but I also think the teaching was pretty bad as I constantly come across amazing facts that I know I would have been interested in as a teenager, if I'd only been told. I assume some people were getting good science education back then, but I certainly wasn't in 1960s Iowa.

4. After living in the United Kingdom for years, Bryson claimed he was too scared to take a British citizenship test.

Bryson moved to the United Kingdom in the 1970s, where he lived on and off for decades. Although he was eligible to take a test to officially become a citizen, he claimed he was too afraid to do so. As a renowned author, he feared that the newspaper headlines would mock him if he failed to pass. Bryson finally had a change of heart in 2015, however, and took the test. He was awarded British citizenship at a ceremony in Winchester. He was apparently quite nervous about the ordeal, claiming:

I was always too cowardly to do it ... you have to know how many MPs there are. Nobody knows that!

5. A Short History of Nearly Everything has been accepted—grudgingly—within the scientific community.

Bryson has always been fully aware—and ready to admit—that he is neither an academic nor an expert, merely an author. However, the scientific community has been forced to accept A Short History of Nearly Everything as a legitimate education text, despite its author's unorthodox academic background. One scientist described the book as "annoyingly free of mistakes." Bryson was even asked, much to his surprise, to serve as Chancellor of Durham University in England—an honor he never anticipated.

6. Bryson's hometown dedicated a holiday to him—and his superhero alter ego.

Bryson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, where he crafted himself a unique alter ego—The Thunderbolt Kid. The author spent his childhood imagining himself as the electrically gifted superhero, who'd use his powers to "vaporize tormentors." Bryson's secret identity stayed with him into adulthood and became the subject of his 2006 memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which chronicled his experiences growing up in Iowa. In 2006 the city of Des Moines honored their resident superhero-turned-celebrity-author by granting him his own holiday within the city. An official proclamation named October 21st "Bill Bryson 'The Thunderbolt Kid' Day."

7. Bryson left his job as a journalist due to a "vicious industrial dispute."

Bryson worked as a journalist for years before authoring A Short History of Nearly Everything, writing for various publications, including British newspapers The Times and The Independent. For the most part he enjoyed this work—until media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought out the paper he was writing for. In 1986 Murdoch moved the paper's headquarters to a nonunionized facility, prompting most of the staff to quit. Bryson described the corporate takeover as "traumatic," and he soon quit, "like a lot of people, reluctantly making the move and then clearing off at the first opportunity."

8. Although Bryson hated his childhood textbooks, one particular illustration inspired his curiosity.

Bryson has been extremely outspoken regarding his disdain for school textbooks and their failure to instill curiosity in students. He recalled, however, that one particular image from a standard-issue textbook piqued his interest. In elementary school Bryson was awestruck by an illustration of Earth with a wedge removed, showing the various layers of the planet's core. The illustration fascinated Bryson, but he found the textual information provided to be so dry that it almost ruined the experience. He reflected on this particular childhood memory as a catalyst for writing A Short History of Nearly Everything decades later.

9. Another of Bryson's books, and the subsequent film adaptation, swamped the Appalachian Trail with new hikers.

Another of Bryson's books, titled A Walk in the Woods and published in 1998, chronicles his semi-successful attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. The best-selling novel was adapted as a film in 2015—forcing Appalachian Trail rangers to prepare for a higher-than-usual number of hikers. Rangers noted that the book's publication alone led to a 60 percent increase in visitors the year of publication. When asked about how he thought the film adaptation would affect the trail's management, Bryson joked:

Well, that's a good question, because I've had at least as many people tell me that my book has put them off the idea of walking the Appalachian Trail.

10. Bryson started an intense campaign against littering in rural England.

Bryson has made it explicitly clear that he has no tolerance for litterbugs. In 2007 he was named president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, an initiative aiming to clean up and preserve the United Kingdom's countryside. Bryson wrote letters to public officials urging them to place stricter fines and penalties on littering offenses. Bryson stated:

Almost everybody who lives in this country loves to go out into the countryside and just be there and walk around in it and enjoy the views and enjoy all that greenery and fresh air, and it's really important that this generation does all it can to preserve that.

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