I Contain Multitudes: the Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

The title is in the center of the cover, surrounded by concentric circles of images that look like they're views through a microscope.
Ed Yong
4
Thursday, Oct 19, 2017

When it comes to nonfiction science books, I definitely have a "type." (I blame Mary Roach for this.) And when I heard that I Contain Multitudes could teach me something about the world around me with engaging clarity and humor, I needed to read it. In it, Ed Yong explores the interconnected web of life that's built on microbes--long thought to be a threat to life, but now known to be a key part of it. Through this lens, we learn to look at ourselves not just as the static result of a specific set of DNA, but as evolving communities of interdependent organisms. Much has been written about microbes and the human microbiome of late, but this is the best account I've taken in by far.

This book has that just-right combination of "wow! that's a neat fact!" tidbits and longer "huh, I didn't think about how that all works together" explorations of microbiology that really made it addictive to read. I was always learning something, and that something was consistently fascinating, and I was usually smirking or grinning at the delivery. With this recipe, Yong puts together a book that's an extremely fulfilling reading experience, which is a great foundation for the science he presents.

Yong shines a light on the microscopic world around us, but also readily admits that we don't know everything yet. He enthusiastically reports about the successes in the world of microbes and where those successes may be headed, without giving the impression that we have gained mastery on the subject. I found this combination of celebrating science while remaining pragmatic very refreshing--in my experience, popular science books tend to ignore the untold part of the story in favor of the shiny newness of the introduction.

Another surprising facet of this narrative is the breadth that Yong manages to cover, gracefully and clearly. I was delighted to learn about a range of creatures and the microbes that are part of their lives. This isn't something I often experience reading other books on health-related science, which are typically human-centered. This book is funny, engaging, informative, accessible, enthusiastic, and illuminating. I highly recommend it if, like me, you have a sense of wonder about the things we're just learning about the world around us.

Courtney S

Written by Courtney S

Fun fact: A bolt of lightning contains enough energy to toast about 100,000 slices of bread.