[I recently posted a review of Mary Roach’s GULP. I mention this because that book is likely to be the primary competitor if you’re looking for a tour of the alimentary canal in book form. While I’d recommend both books and point out that the two have different thrusts, if you’re set on reading just one book on poop and farts this year, the two reviews should help you determine which work is more up your alley.]
In this highly readable and humorous book, medical student Giulia Enders teaches us how to poop, what to do when we can’t, how our bodies extract resources from the stuff we shove in our pie holes, and what the bacteria that outnumber our body’s cells by an order of magnitude do for (and against) us. The book is in part a work of popular science, but it’s also a guidebook to the digestive tract. In other words, Enders not only tells readers about the wondrous job their digestive system does, but she also offers advice as to how to keep it running efficiently.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part lays out what the gut consists of and how it does its job. The second part introduces the reader to the enteric nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that governs the digestive tract and determines when we vomit, poop, and—to some degree–experience emotional turmoil. The final part addresses the body as an ecosystem. The human body consists of 10 trillion cells and another 100 trillion microbes—cells that could theoretically live independently of your body provided the right conditions.
The strength of this book lies in Enders’s ability to put the complex physiological actions of our body into simple, understandable, and whimsical terms. This may mean anthropomorphizing a colon, but so be it—you’ll still get the drift. A prime example is the “Salmonella in Hats” section that equates antibodies with big floppy sombreros that interfere with the germ’s mobility and virulence. The author’s enthusiasm for this “under-rated” organ is infectious.
The book employs amusing, off-beat line drawings to help convey relevant ideas and to support the stories that the author uses to clarify the complex actions of the gut. The art is well matched to the tone of the text, which makes sense given they were drawn by the author’s sister.
As I mentioned in my GULP review, GUT is a very different book despite all they have in common. Enders spends the bulk of her time in the middle of the alimentary canal, where Roach spends most of her time talking about what happens at the two ends. Enders’s book is about the typical Joe’s digestive system, where Roach specializes in extreme cases and narrow (but fascinating) questions. Enders’s book is more of a tour of the digestive system rather than a series of tales of interesting things that happen in and around it. While Roach’s book deals in bizarre cases, Enders’s book is actually more light-hearted and informal in tone. (Whimsical is a good descriptor for GUT.)
I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about how their digestive system works and what they can do to keep it working at its best. It’s funny and packed with fun facts.