A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (2003)

We should be grateful that Bryson, best known for his travel writing and occasional linguistic pedantry, decided to rectify his own lack of general scientific knowledge by interviewing scads of experts and putting down what they said in a book. We start with the universe itself, covering much of the same ground as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time but with a more engaging style, and after a few sections on physics and earth sciences move on to life and a history of our own species. This book does not quite live up to the qualifier “short” as well as Hawking’s managed to be brief, but it does a decent job of covering nearly everything, as long as by that you mean scientific knowledge at time of writing (in other words, as of today, with a few notable exceptions brought to light by the Large Hadron Collider). Bryson’s story remains chatty and readable throughout and you can easily see why work like his others sold extremely well, but the book is still long enough to be the sort of thing I read over a few months, with several novels mixed in during breaks. It’s well worth reading if collecting general knowledge about the world is fun for you, and you’ve ever spent an evening getting lost in Wikipedia. The sections are fairly self-contained, so should you happen to not be interested in, say, a history of estimates of the age of the earth (or already know as much as you’d like on that topic), you could easily skip ahead to a section that interests you more. I likely won’t go out and read his travelogues now, but I’m sure they’re just as entertaining, should those subjects interest you as well. In short, worth reading.