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4.5 out of 5 stars716
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on 30 November 2004
I have never felt so compelled to write a review before; this book is a true masterpiece. Bill brings science to the masses in an entertaining and easy to understand manner. If you've ever wondered for example, what the theory of relativity actually means, get this book. I read it in a week, now I am going to read it again, and probably again after that! The size of the volume belies the breadth of topics covered.
Alongside the huge amount of science contained in this book, we also look back at the constant bickering, back-stabbing and fallings-out of history's great scientists and revolutionaries and wonder how scientific knowledge managed to advance in light of this.
This is truly a magnificent achievement given the author is not a scientist, but then if it were written by a scientist, would I have understood a word of it, and would I have enjoyed it so much?
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on 11 June 2003
My family bought me this book for my birthday at least partly to see whether reading it might make tea come out of my nose as had gratifyingly (for them) happened with an earlier Bill Bryson book that I had anti-socially taken to the table because I couldn't stop reading it.
It didn't, but it did cause me to go AWOL from my domestic responsibilities for quite some time, and sometimes to stagger round clutching my head as my brain refused to assimilate any more. I enjoyed it enormously. It's Bill Bryson's enviable gift to be able to write so clearly and elegantly, conveying his enthusiasm without drawing attention to his erudition. The fact that you find yourself becoming passionately interested in glaciers after a lifetime of not giving them a second thought says it all. Reading this book is a moving, frightening, awe inspiring and yet curiously optimistic experience, and everyone should do it.
My only complaint is that Doubleday have chosen not to bind this book properly. Gluing books together, especially hardback books, ought to be some sort of crime.
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on 5 July 2006
Whilst some of Bill Bryson's previous works (the "Notes" books in particluar) have fallen foul of whimsical and off-the-cuff eulogising, thankfully the manner of the dialogue in "A Short History of Nearly Everthing" is so captivating and free of personal opinion that very little crticism at all can be levelled at this wonderful book.

Perhaps its only downfall is that it is, of course, hardly a history of "nearly everything" as there isn't enough paper available in the world to print a book covering such a broad sweep. However, the subject material Bryson touches upon here is both accessible for the non-scientific reader and refreshing enough for those with an interest in a history of the Earth and the Universe in which it sits.

Commencing with an account of the Big Bang, Bryson guides us through the processes of creation, the evolution of life on earth, the impact of events both natural and man-made on the earth's environment and the discoveries we are still making in all areas of science. History is, of course, much more striking than fiction, and it is this alone that makes the text so unforgettable. Bryson remarks with clear and candid understatement that the frequent naievete of mankind and our capacity to underestimate contemporary thought has acted as a buffer against our natural development. Quite often it has been the environment which has suffered as a consequence, and sections where Bryson makes this point hark of similar parts of his "A Walk in the Woods".

Another positive concerning the book is that its structure makes it easily put down and picked up again. Chapters which only casually relate to each other make the themes of the book clearly de-marcated, and clearly would work as a school science reader as one cover critic sensibly states. Its a great book for dog-earing the page and returning for a re-read at a later date; sometimes the facts and statistics alone create such intermediate thought that the reader needs to return to the book for further deliberation.

If you are a fan of Bryson, I am not sure that this book should be read for that reason. It should be read as a matter of course by anyone who has the slightest interest in the course of natural history and just what an incredible universe we live in. "A Short History" should stand outside the canon of Bill Bryson's other work for all the right reasons and should be recognised as a versatile author's attempt at enlivening a genre which is often treated in a dreadfully bland and mundane manner by other less lively science books.
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on 19 February 2004
Excellent! Just great... This book filled in all the gaps my school years left out. Whilst I may never remember all the information in the book, I can certainly say that my understanding of why we are who we are is greatly improved. I would suggest you buy the paperback version as the hardback is a little bit of a tomb due to the wealth of text contained within. Bryson is not at his literary best is this offering, however his insight and historical accuracy leave no stone unturned. I am a bigger fan of Bryson by the day and have 5 of his titles under my [reading] belt now... this title does a great service to his continued range of subjects and I can't wait to see what Bryson puts under the microscope next!
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on 10 January 2006
Not being one of huge ability to read, I have strayed away from books for years, but with a newely found interest in the world around us, and history of the planet I decided to give this book a bash as it was recommended highly.
And what a delight. It challeneged me, entertained me, and educated me from start to finish. The way that Bill Bryson has writen this book, keeps you amazed, as he converts the astronomical numbers of life into things that can be conveyed into modern comprehension.
I changed my method of transport to work so I would have time to keep reading this, as time is limited at home, and I'm so glad I've finished it, as it has increased my knowledge of the world massively. A must for anyone with an inquisitive mind.
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on 9 June 2003
I've always enjoyed Bill Bryson's books. He could write about the dullest, most depressing seaside resort I've ever visited and make me want to go back just to revisit it through his eyes. His skill is his desire to research an area so thoroughly that you see it in another light entirely.
He has brought this skill to bear in amazing ways - making the history of the English language (Mother Tongue) or English versus American culture (Made in America) absorbing and hilarious reads, even making a dictionary of tricky and often misused words a great book to sit down and read page by page (Troublesome Words).
A Short History of Nearly Everything is far and away his most ambitious book. I personally love books like this, and if I had a wish list of authors I would like to sit down for 3 years to try and make sense of the heaviest scientific questions I could think of, and try and make the answers enlightening and amusing, I would pick Bill. This man could research the inside of a ping-pong ball and come up with fifty amusing factual stories about it. When he's dealing with the history of the universe... I just wish the book were longer. Or part of a series.
I don't wish to sound selfish, but every moment Bill Bryson spends not writing books like this is just an annoyance to me.
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on 16 July 2003
I bought 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' because I read an interview with Bill Bryson where he describes it as a book for anyone who is interested in science and how things work but never enjoyed it as an academic subject. As this descibes me too a T I purchased a copy hoping that it would provide me with an idiot's guide to the world.
The book does way more than that. In five hundered pages roughly evenly divided between what can be grouped as physics, chemistry, biology and geo/eco sciences he exaplins the bare bones of what you need to know to understand human life and the galaxy we live in. And boy does he describe it well. By providing us with amusing pen portraits of the key figures (and there are some very odd fish indeed) and taking the protracted route to his point in order to fit in a few good anacdotes he accompanies the science with fascinating and funny information.
As for the science itself, it's blissfully acessible. In fact, at times I found myself wishing he'd go into slightly more depth because I recognised that he'd left out things I'd covered in science GCSEs. On other occasions however, especially in the realm of quantum physics and subatomic physics (what else?), I did have to concentrate very hard to get it. Accounting for individual differences I'd say that most people could understand the science without too many problems.
His gift with language is wonderfully apparent throughout the book. Not only is it well structured, craftily so in fact, but the prose is snappy, the pace comfortable and his paragraphing perfect. Bryson seems to have borne in mind as he wrote that his target audience won't have had much patience for science books in the past and thus it doesn't read like a text book at all but as an amusing and well written meander theough the personalities and discoveries of the scientific past. He even manages to make some of the really big (or really small) numbers comprehensible!
I recommend 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' very highly, even though it isn't a history of nearly everything. This is a good thing as it means that there's lots more for him to write similar books about. Roll on the sequel!
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on 19 January 2005
This is by far the best book on the history of natural science I've ever read.
Bryson's presentation of the potentially esoteric and incomprehensible subjects is full of clarity and enthusiasm. For example, he presents statistics not as mere numbers but explains just how astronomical and incomprehensive their scales are to our ordinary human mind. What is also nice about this book is that he describes the personalities, obsessions and eccentricities of those who made important scientific contributions. The political drama of scientific discovery and recognition is thrillingly narrated, and Bryson should be congratulated for his sympathetic recognition of those who made the first discoveries but were ignored by the world simply because their ideas were too radical for the age, only to be `discovered' by someone else later.
In this day and age when university science departments are forced to close down because of poor funding and decreasing student numbers, which in turn is due to fewer people taking up subjects like physics at school, a book which not only affords you a good basic understanding of science but also makes you excited about it is a true gem. Every school library should have a copy of this book. Every household should have one. And if you are one of those people who never excelled at science at school and have lost interest since then, this is the book for you, as it was for me.
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on 26 January 2006
I had bought and read the original book when it came out first, and thought it was brilliant. When I saw that there was an illustrated edition i put it on my wish list for Christmas. When I got it I was so disappointed. I was hoping that the illustration would enhance the book but photographs of the scientists he is talking about, covers of science fiction magazines and a few loosely connected illustrations don't add to the written word.
Save your money and buy the non illustrated version. This edition is a shameless ploy to extract a few more pounds/euros/dollars from people who are already fans of the book.
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VINE VOICEon 6 October 2003
I don't often give a book five stars but this one is exceptional. As a Science graduate (a long time ago) I had a poor knowledge of a lot of physical phenomena - and this book plugged most of the gaps. Not that it requires any scientific knowledge on your part. It's very well written and explains things in an interesting and clear manner. The insights into the people behind many of the break-throughs were particularly interesting.
So if you want to know the age of the earth (and how we know this), how mountains form, how we worked out the size of the earth, how life began, how an atom bomb works, and where we're heading in the future then this book is for you. It should be mandatory reading for every grown-up. Absolutely perfect bedside reading.
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