The Wellcome Book Prize celebrating fiction and non-fiction with a medical theme was “paused” this year – a decision taken before the current pandemic, although even if it had gone ahead, it would have inevitably faced disruption anyway. Fortunately, Rebecca has organised an alternative Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour of books that would have been eligible had the prize taken place this year. Rebecca, Laura, Paul, Annabel and I will be selecting a shortlist over the weekend based on what we’ve managed to read between us and announcing a winner on 11th May based on our discussions and a Twitter poll.
This post is the final stop on the blog tour and I am championing The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson. Best known for his travel writing, Bryson has also written a number of history and science books of which ‘The Body’ is the most recent. When it was published just over six months ago, nobody would have predicted that the chapters on microbes and infectious diseases, particularly pages 33-36 on viruses, would take on a new significance, but these are the times we now live in.
Stuffed with fascinating facts, Bryson has a knack for synthesising and explaining difficult concepts with entertaining analogies and memorably mind-boggling statistics in his effortlessly amiable style. I’m not sure if such an unashamedly “popular” science book would have progressed very far had it been in contention for the Prize this year. It is very much a whistle-stop tour of the human body – major organs and diseases are summarised in just a few pages or paragraphs each in most cases. However, the breakneck pace means no subject area is dwelled on for too long and the reader can’t fail to appreciate the vastness of medicine as well as the huge number of tasks our bodies complete without us even noticing. As Bryson says: “In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.” And it’s no bad thing that ‘The Body’ will be read by a wide audience as it is the type of book which serves as an important gateway towards better understanding about how the human body actually works. Hopefully it will also raise more awareness about subjects like antimicrobial resistance and discussion on issues surrounding life expectancy and quality of life which are addressed in later chapters. Overall, ‘The Body’ is a highly engaging book which will particularly satisfy longtime Bryson fans and those who enjoy random trivia (I subscribe to both of these categories).
I am also championing another book which would have been eligible for this year’s Wellcome Book Prize – The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid was one of my books of 2019 and is a brilliantly written memoir about life-changing injury. My original review from last year is reposted below:
In April 2010, at the age of 52, journalist Melanie Reid broke her neck and fractured her back after falling from a horse, spending nearly a year in a high-dependency spinal unit. She is now a tetraplegic, permanently paralysed from the top of her chest downwards and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She has documented her experience of adult-acquired disability in her ‘Spinal Column’ in the Times for several years now. Her memoir ‘The World I Fell Out Of’ draws on those articles but also provides a fuller account of how her life changed following the accident.
I try not to describe memoirs as “honest” in my reviews, but it really has to be said that Reid’s candour about the aftermath of her accident is unflinching, particularly the aspects of care, rehabilitation and mental outlook that are rarely discussed, from the intimate indignities of being doubly incontinent, to coming to terms psychologically with the randomness and suddenness of what happened, to being permanently relegated to seat-level in a wheelchair – Reid is 6 feet tall and her height had always played a big part in her self-confidence. She had a second fall from a horse less than two years later, breaking her hip during a supervised Riding for the Disabled session, an episode she didn’t discuss in detail in her columns at the time. And yet, despite the life-changing setbacks and challenges of Reid’s situation, ‘The World I Fell Out Of’ is a darkly funny book, particularly when she describes the other patients and NHS staff in hospital.
Which books would you have liked to see on the Wellcome Book Prize longlist this year? Have you read any of the books featured in the blog tour?