A Really Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. 2008. New York: Delacorte Press. 161 pages.

Ages: Written primarily for middle school and up, but appealing to readers from upper elementary through adult.

Genre: Informational, emphasizing astronomy, physics, and some history.

Summary

Curiosity may have killed off a cat or two, but it definitely breathes life into informational writing—as evidenced by the work of noted author Bill Bryson. This new edition of Bryson’s bestselling A Short History of Nearly Everything has been condensed and adapted for younger readers—and the result is a book that makes physics and astronomy accessible not only for students, but for many adult readers as well. The ambitious title comes from the fact that the book deals with nothing less than the origin of the universe itself—and goes on to address major cosmic questions like these: Is there an “edge” to the universe? How many solar systems are there? How old is the earth? What are the odds of any living thing becoming a fossil? What happened to the dinosaurs? Does time have a shape? Should we fear asteroids? What pushed ocean living creatures onto land? Are we headed for chilly times—or a big warm-up?  These and literally hundreds of other related questions are tackled headlong through Bryson’s obvious passion for science and exploration. The style is conversational and snappy; chapters are short, easy to digest, and amply illustrated, both with striking photos and comical (often enlightening) cartoon drawings. Bryson’s primary goal is to give us a memorable and readable overview of how our universe, solar system, planet, and species came to be. No single topic is explored in great depth; but for the “big picture” (and I do mean big), this book is hard to beat. Most striking is Bryson’s obvious fascination with his topic. As he says in his Foreword, “Whether you are talking about how the universe began from nothing, or how each one of us is made up of trillions of mindless atoms that somehow work together in an agreeably coordinated fashion, or why the oceans are salty, or what happens when stars explode, or anything at all—it is all amazingly interesting. It really is.” There’s a lesson here. The capacity to find your topic “amazingly interesting” leads to supremely good writing.  You won’t find that stated anywhere in the Common Core standards—yet it just might be the single most important thing we can teach our young informational writers.

In the Classroom

There are several ways to use a well-written informational text such as this one:

  • Use it as a source of information students can then use to write their own essays, summaries, or commentary.
  • Discuss strategy, considering how the writer chooses details, organizes information, or makes technical passages appealing and understandable.
  • Use selected passages (or chapters) as models.

Following are suggestions for incorporating various forms of these three approaches, while emphasizing skills specified in the Common Core Standards:

  1. Reading. This would be a very long book to share aloud in its entirety, but if you preview it, you will find many favorite chapters to choose from. And since each chapter runs only two pages (Bryson sticks to this consistently), it’s fairly easy to share a chapter as an introduction to discussion or a writing lesson. Note: If you teach science and want additional background, by all means check out the parent book: A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003, New York: Broadway Books.
  2. Presentation. Though presentation is something we often discuss last, in this case, it’s a good place to begin. That’s because the layout of the book is both visually appealing and thoughtfully integrated with the text. Notice the playful chapter head fonts, the various kinds of illustrations, the generous use of subheadings that make smaller topics easy to locate, and the ample use of white space (open space) that makes an occasionally technical discussion look easy to read. Be sure to use a document projector if you have one available.
  3. Topic.  Notice the title of the book. Normally, we caution students to keep their topics small and manageable. This is anything but! Did Bryson go too far . . . or, does he find a way to handle this seemingly infinite topic?
  4. The set-up.  If you’re familiar with the Common Core Standards for informational writing, you know that they call for skill in setting up a discussion. Share the early chapter, “How do they know that?” to see how Bryson does this. What do your students think? Is he successful?
  5. Developing the topic. The Common Core Standards for informational writing also require the writer to develop or expand the topic through “facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.” Does Bryson do a good job of this? In answering this question, you might begin by scanning the Table of Contents, to see what general sub-topics he covers. Then, as you share and discuss individual chapters, look for the ways in which Bryson develops or expands his topic. In other words, does he rely on facts? Definitions? Concrete details? Or—other means? Or does Bryson, in fact, meet ALL the criteria of the Common Core?
  6. Organization. Organization that promotes readers’ understanding is highly valued in the Common Core. One might think that organizing a book about “nearly everything” would be an all-but-impossible task. Of course, the book isn’t literally about everything—it has focus, meaning that some topics (cooking, pet ownership, European architecture) cannot be included. But in scanning the Table of Contents, pay attention to what Bryson discusses first, next, and last. See if your students can identify a pattern. Would they have organized anything differently? Left something out? Added something? Moved things around?
  7. Background and summary. What do your students know from previous reading (or other research) about the so-called Big Bang? How do they think of it? What existed prior to this point—and afterward? Share the chapter called “The Big Bant” (pp. 6-7). Then, ask students to write a summary description of the “Big Bang.” Was it really a “bang” like an explosion—or something more complex and subtle? Is it still going on today?
  8. Detail. One of the hallmarks of great informational writing is its capability to teach readers new information. In this book, we learn some astonishing things: e.g., gravity emerged within “a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang” (p. 6). What other details are truly standouts—things that are definitely not common knowledge, and that we might not learn from a typical textbook? Make a list. Encourage students to include at least one such detail in each piece of their own informational writing.
  9. Research. It’s startling (if not downright hilarious) to note that critics of A Really Short History have suggested that Bryson has not adequately documented sources for his information—“not that we don’t trust him,” as one put it. True, this book does not have footnotes or endnotes. But surely, author Bill Bryson is not just making things up as he goes along—or trusting to memory . . . is he? Indeed, he is not. Begin by discussing research strategies with students. Where do they suppose Bryson got most of his information? From interviews? Reading? Personal experience? Actually—all of the above. For documentation, see the book on which this one is based, A Short History of Nearly Everything.  In that earlier edition, Bryson thoroughly documents his research, beginning with the Acknowledgments (pp. vii to ix). He also includes an impressive set of Notes (pp. 479 to 516). Indeed, Bryson’s Notes are longer than some books. He also offers us a lengthy bibliography (pp. 517 to 527). Secondary students or others wishing for additional information (or further expansion of ideas) should consult A Short History, using A Really Short History as a kind of introduction.
  10. Voice. Critics are almost never happy, it seems. But some have actually complained that this book is not as humorous as some of Bryson’s work. Really? Well, it’s challenging to make jokes about the periodic table or the Richter Scale. But at the same time, Bryson has a wry wit, and a good sense of the absurd: “Of course, it is possible that alien beings travel billions of kilometres [British spelling] to amuse themselves by planting crop circles in the English countryside, or frightening the daylights out of some poor guy in a truck on a lonely road in Arizona, but it does seem unlikely” p. 20).  So—what sort of voice is this anyway? After sharing a few passages aloud, ask your students to respond to this question, also discussing how voice influences the effectiveness of informational writing. Most students should notice, among other things, that Bryson is extremely enthusiastic about his topic. His voice is a mix of enthusiasm, excitement, curiosity, and confidence. How does this affect the way we as readers respond to the message?
  11. Word choice. Not all readers regard this book as highly technical; in fact, they’re very divided on this issue. What do your students think? Remember that another hallmark of good informational writing (and an integral part of the Common Core Standards) is the writer’s ability to use the language of the territory with skill and grace—and to make readers comfortable with any terminology necessary to a discussion of the topic at hand. Perhaps Bryson is so good at this that we hardly notice how many technical terms he is using. To check it out, have a look at the Index (pp. 162ff.). How many terms listed here would be familiar and comfortable without the author’s help? Consider . . . alchemy, australopithecines, calderas, cryptozoa, Doppler shift, eukaryote, exosphere, foraminiferans, hadrosaur, KT extinction, Manson crater, nucleotides, Pangaea, plate tectonics, red-shift, riwoche . . . to name just a handful. See if your students can identify passages in which Bryson makes word meaning clear through direct definition or from context (the way the term is used).
  12. Conventions. Let’s hear it for the bulleted list, bold print, and enlarged print! These elements, which may also be considered part of presentation, are clearly favored by the design editor. See if you can identify passages in which these or other design features make a difference in readability.
  13. Argument. The Common Core Standards for argument place great weight upon evidence, proving (to the best of your ability) that your assertions are accurate. With this in mind, consider author Bill Bryson’s arguments for the age of the Earth—estimated (according to sources for this book) at about 4.5 billion years (p. 74). What evidence exists to support this estimate? Is that evidence clearly and thoroughly presented here? Are you and your students convinced? In answering this, look particularly closely at the following chapters: “So, here we are . . . “ (p. 38), “Finding Earth’s age” (p. 40), “Slow and steady does it” (p. 44), “Finding fossils” (p. 46), and “So, here we are . . . “ (p. 74). Given the evidence available, what is the best educated guess for the age of our planet? Write about this.
  14. Argument. Some chapters of this book might be regarded as a bit scary—or at least troublesome. In one somewhat controversial chapter (“Yellowstone Park,” pp. 86-87), Bryson writes about the Yellowstone caldera, noting that the park is “full of unstable magma that could blow at any time” (p. 87). In others (pp. 90-94), we learn of the very real possibilities of Earth’s being hit by an asteroid (or indeed, more than one). Some readers feel that this information is too alarming to share with young readers. What do your students think? Is it questionable or important—even imperative—to include such information in a book intended for younger readers? Draft a short argument taking a position on this.
  15. Ending. One requirement of the Common Core Standards for informational writing is a strong ending. Look carefully at the chapters “Humans take over,” “What now?” and “Goodbye.” What sort of ending does Bryson provide for his discussion of our cosmic history? What challenges does he present? On a scale of 1 to 10, how strong do your students think this ending is? Why?
  16. Predictions. In two chapters, “Hot and cold” and “Chilly times” (pp. 142-145), Bryson suggests that the Earth has experienced alternating periods of extraordinary cold—and surprising tropical warmth. Where we are headed now is unknown, he says: “Only one thing is certain; we live on a knife edge.” Using information from this book or other sources, ask students to make an educated guess about where we might be headed.
  17. Survival—and more predictions. Throughout Earth’s history, certain species have shown an extraordinary capacity for survival. Discuss this with students. What characteristics enable some species to sustain life when others go extinct? Which species have been the most successful? Do humans have the necessary characteristics to survive indefinitely here on Earth? (To extend your discussion of this topic, check out Joyce Sidman’s incredible book, Ubiquitous.)
  18. Argument. Bryson’s ending to this book leaves us with an unmistakable challenge. He clearly states (p. 160) that if you were to put someone in charge of the cosmos, “you wouldn’t choose human beings for the job.” Citing evidence from this book and other sources, ask students to write an argument defending or rejecting this point of view. Consider research that goes beyond reading, perhaps interviewing someone like an astronaut, biologist, botanist, astronomer, anthropologist, or sociologist. Ask students to think creatively about when and how they assemble evidence to support their point of view.
  19. Theme. This is clearly a science book, not a discussion of philosophy or religious perspective. Yet, throughout the book, Bryson refers to the “miracle of life.” From a scientific perspective, what does he mean by this? How does this theme influence the message and voice of the book?
  20. Questions, questions, questions . . . Bryson opens his book with a suggestion that his research was an effort to answer questions that bugged him as he read other books—the ones he didn’t find all that exciting (p. 3)! What questions remain for your students at the end of this book? Brainstorm a list. Then ask students to identify one question as the focus for personal research (a major focus for Common Core informational writing standards). Remember to emphasize all forms of research—not just reading, but also interviews, site visits, personal experience, and so on.

Note: Other books by Bill Bryson include In a Sunburned Country, Made in America, At Home, Neither Here Nor There, A Walk in the Woods, and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson is known for his in-depth research, meticulous attention to detail, unbridled curiosity, and almost unmatched ability to infuse even technical passages with voice.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Did you know Julia Child fancied cats? Look for a review of Minette’s Feast, a delightful and unusual book you’re sure to enjoy. We’ll also be talking in coming weeks about the often underrated importance of narrative writing. And we’ll continue making connections to the Common Core as we go along. Please remember, for the BEST in workshops integrating traits, standards, literature, process, and workshop, phone us at 503-579-3034. See you next time, and bring friends! Give every child a voice . . .   

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