the snake feels my footfalls through its belly, and i, too, feel its movement in my belly
5.) The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn: This book takes a broad look at the role that hangers-on have on human life.
4.) The Psychobiotic Revolution by Scott C. Anderson et. al.: This book focuses on the role that our gut microbiota have on our mental well-being–which increasingly appears to be substantial.
3.) Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser: The focus of this book is on how our love of antibiotics in every form– from pills to antimicrobial soaps–is killing us by denying us microbiotic diversity and robustness.
2.) 10% Human by Alanna Collen: Collen’s book addresses many of the same issues as the other books mentioned, but–as the title suggests–it emphasizes the fact that a human has 10 times as many hangers-on of other species as it does cells that are contiguous to the body. (If you’re wondering how this could be, it’s because the human body has some pretty big cells [some macroscopic, in fact] and the bacteria and other single-celled species tend to be relatively tiny.)
1.) I Contain Multitudes by Ed Young: This is probably the most highly-regarded of the books on this subject. It was considered one of the best science books of 2016.
[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.
This week I’m [improbably] doing two book reviews about works devoted to the human digestive tract. (Before you conclude that I’ve got a colon fetish, let me explain that I was spurred to this research by life events. I did some advanced yoga cleansing practices and wanted to learn more about the science of what was going on down below.) In addition to this book, Mary Roach’s “GULP,” I’ll be soon posting a review of Giulia Enders’s “GUT.” The two books have more in common than their monosyllabic titles beginning in “gu” and the fact that they each came out within the past couple years. They’re both light-hearted romps down your digestive tract. However, they’re also different in several key ways. GULP is quirkier; GUT is perkier, but more importantly the two books have different thrusts (yes, there’s just that much interesting stuff to learn about digestion (and the lack thereof)—which make the two books complementary. Cutting to the chase, I’d recommend both books, but if you only read one book about your alimentary canal this year, I hope my reviews will help you determine which one is for you.
Explaining how Roach’s book is “quirkier” will tell one a lot about Roach’s book and how it differs from Ender’s work. (And since Ender’s writing style could be described as quirky itself, it’ll help clarify that as well.) By “quirky,” I mean that Roach’s book is built around a set of narrow questions that address topics of a bizarre or strange nature. In GULP one will read about whether your pet really wants “paté in beef gravy” [spoiler: it does not], whether the story of Jonah and the whale is BS, how smugglers use their digestive tracts illicitly, what are the benefits of Fletcherizing (chewing your food more thoroughly—much more thoroughly), whether Thanksgiving dinner can split one’s stomach open (like it feels it does), and what’s the worst case flatulence scenario.
This isn’t to say that one doesn’t learn something about the basic science of digestion as one is reading about extreme cases of tasting skill, stomach fistulas, flatulence, constipation, and overeating. One does, but this book isn’t organized to educate one about the alimentary canal systematically and generally. It’s a work of creative nonfiction designed to make the reader keep saying “huh, I never would have thought” and it does an outstanding job of it. You may not have given much thought to some of these topics, but you’ll be craving answers by the time you get past the chapter heading. There’s a reason that Roach’s works top the charts of pop science books. She finds the interesting questions and the most fascinating examples.
There are 17 chapters in GULP, and while they collectively take one on a tour of the alimentary canal, Roach devotes more space to some parts than others. She spends more time on what goes at the head end (smelling, tasting, chewing, and salivating) than does Enders. Also, please don’t think the book is low brow or that it appeals to the lowest common denominator (8-year-old boys?) when I tell you that there are three chapters on various dimensions of flatulence.
As I said, you may not have thought much about some of these questions, but you’ll learn something nonetheless. A prime example can be seen in the chapter on smuggling via the digestive tract. I’d read stories of cocaine mules dying when a condom burst in their stomach, but I had no idea about the extent to which items and materials are smuggled down there. It’s not just drugs. One guy was explaining how he smuggled knives. Really. Knives. Plural.
There are a few topics that are well covered by both books. Take, for example, constipation. Roach elucidates the topic using the case of Elvis Presley and others who’ve been literally terminally constipated. (Ender’s—on the other hand—considers the everyman’s constipation, though with amusing drawings and commentary.)
I’d recommend this book for readers interested in learning more about how their food makes its way through—particularly if you like learning about the strange cases.