How Bill Bryson went to discover more about the body... and found a startling ...

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In the flesh, Bryson, a 67-year- old father-of-four and grandfather-of-ten, is comfortably rumpled with a greying beard and pebble glasses. Writing The Body has made him newly respectful of the one he’s walking around in but he’s not planning to change the eating, drinking and exercise habits that so endear him to his readers

() In the flesh, Bryson, a 67-year- old father-of-four and grandfather-of-ten, is comfortably rumpled with a greying beard and pebble glasses. Writing The Body has made him newly respectful of the one he’s walking around in but he’s not planning to change the eating, drinking and exercise habits that so endear him to his readers

If you unzipped me and told me to reach in and find my spleen, I wouldn’t have a clue,’ says Bill Bryson. 

‘Who would? What’s half an inch under our skin is a mystery.’ 

He’s not wrong – a fact brought home to him just as he’d begun researching his latest book about the human body.

An MRI scan for a hernia, a minor medical issue, revealed the bestselling author had only one kidney. 

It’s not that the other had suddenly given up. 

He’d never had a matching pair and had made it into his 60s without knowing. 

‘I had 24 hours of paranoia,’ he says. 

‘Apparently, if you only start with one then it’s pretty robust but the doctors might as well have told me to stop worrying about death itself. Finding out really drove home to me how little we know about our insides.’

In his earlier science book, the hugely popular A Short History Of Nearly Everything, Bryson looked out into the universe. 

Now, in The Body: A Guide For Occupants, he looks inwards, examining every inch of us from the head, where hair grows at the rate of one third of a millimetre a day, to our feet, which contain 52 of the body’s 206 bones, double the number the spine needs to hold us up. 

This remarkable new book – ‘it’s a kind of owners’ manual,’ he says – will be serialised exclusively in The Mail on Sunday over the next three weeks.

What Bryson learned along the way left him so awestruck he’s now tempted to leave himself to medical science when he dies. ‘If they’ll have me – it’s more popular than you think,’ he says. 

‘But being in a dissecting room with cadavers and medical students… that was the day I felt true wonderment. Our insides are such a mess, they don’t look capable of doing all the complicated things humans do. 

Above all was how I felt about the brain, which looks like a large pudding. How can there be human love in there, just because of electrical impulses?

If you unzipped me and told me to reach in and find my spleen, I wouldn’t have a clue,’ says Bill Bryson. ‘Who would? What’s half an inch under our skin is a mystery'. A stock image is used above [File photo]

If you unzipped me and told me to reach in and find my spleen, I wouldn’t have a clue,’ says Bill Bryson. ‘Who would? What’s half an inch under our skin is a mystery'. A stock image is used above [File photo]

‘Your body is mostly scaffolding and plumbing. Your brain is you. Yet 75 to 80 per cent of it is water and the rest is fat and protein. Imagine someone giving you a pail of water, some fat and some protein and being told to shake it up and make a brain. 

A very patient computer scientist calculated that 1.2 billion copies of my book could be stored in a piece of brain the size of a grain of salt. If that’s not amazing, you tell me what is.’

It’s this curiosity, humanity and sense of fun that has seen Bryson become one of Britain’s most beloved writers since The Lost Continent, his travelogue around his native America, was published in 1989. (It famously begins: ‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.’) Along the way he has sold many, many millions of books.

He seemed to specialise in funny, gimlet-eyed trips to unfamiliar places until A Short History Of Nearly Everything stunned the worlds of science and publishing in 2003. 

It became the biggest-selling non-fiction book of its decade in Britain and the Royal Society awarded Bryson the same prize it gave Professor Stephen Hawking for A Brief History Of Time. 

Now the nation is holding its breath (generally you breathe in and out 20,000 times a day) for its companion.

Bryson was clueless about his single kidney until after he’d begun writing the book, which is really a quest to find out what lies under everyone’s skin

Bryson was clueless about his single kidney until after he’d begun writing the book, which is really a quest to find out what lies under everyone’s skin

In the flesh, Bryson, a 67-year- old father-of-four and grandfather-of-ten, is comfortably rumpled with a greying beard and pebble glasses. 

Writing The Body has made him newly respectful of the one he’s walking around in but he’s not planning to change the eating, drinking and exercise habits that so endear him to his readers.

‘I have never been vegan or vegetarian and I would actively hate to go teetotal. My favourite drink in the world is red wine.’

Any one in particular? ‘A cheap one. Something from the bottom of the supermarket shelf. I love the taste of a rough table wine – if it costs £3 a bottle, so much the better.’ 

He was an ardent smoker from the age of 14 until his late 30s – ‘I’d come out of school in Des Moines and light up, thinking I was real cool’ – and while he stays fit by walking and gardening, he shuns the gym. The last time he was slim was for his daughter’s two years ago ‘but I did that for her, not for myself’. 

What does he weigh? ‘I don’t know.’ What is his body mass index? ‘Oof, I don’t want to know.’ He’s always enjoyed robust good health. 

There have been no serious illnesses or accidents which inspired him to write The

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