Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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.
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