Book Review // I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

I love to read because I love to learn. For that reason, I’m always curious what books others are learning from. In case that’s you too, I thought it would be fun to leave reviews of relevant books that I’ve recently finished here, as a way to pass on what I’ve enjoyed. I welcome comments on related book suggestions too!

It’s rare for me to read books about science for the general public that I wholeheartedly enjoy. It’s not that I don’t love science – I do. It’s that each scientific niche demands its own precise language to parse interrelated ideas, and the balance of striking technical correctness with literary interest is a formidable challenge. I’m often either a little too familiar with the subject matter (if it’s close to my research field) or else left wanting to know more of those juicy technical nitty gritty details that are deemed too in the weeds for most readers. The middle ground is hard to strike, at least for me.

That said, Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes is a delightful exception. His book, the full title of which is I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (Ecco 2016) really does offer that: a grander view of the world we live in through the lens of symbiosis to the microbes in and around us.

But not just us. What I appreciate about it’s exploration is that it is suprahuman. It is not myopic in solely focusing on how microbes impact us, but gamely explores symbiosis and the fascinating role of microbes in numerous contexts, from bioluminescence to the inner environments of buildings. Yong is both careful and artful in his language, and presents his scientifically accurate reporting in a delightful way. It ushered me out of my own research background in the gut and into a much broader picture of interrelatedness between ourselves and our microbes.

One very beautiful thing that Yong accomplishes very early in the book is inspiring wonder in his readers. The book stayed just as interesting the whole way through. I often get end-of-book fatigue, where an author’s ideas start to blur together after awhile and I’m aware that I’m nearly finished. Not so here. The storytelling remained compelling and relevant from start to finish. As a new reader of Yong’s, it primes me for his next work and establishes trust in his precise and careful reporting of otherwise highly technical details. I know I will be back for more.

If the microbiome even kind of interests you, or science in general, I think this book is a great read. Happy pages!