by Mary Roach
W. W. Norton, 2013
Review by Christian Perring on Apr 2nd 2013
Gulp is a delightful tour of the human body from mouth and nose to anus, although many parts are not for the squeamish. Mary Roach has already established her reputation as a very engaging science writer with her books Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, and this new book is full of intriguing information and striking researchers and experts. The book starts out with a professional smeller, Sue Langstaff, who has remarkable talents at identifying and analyzing the odors in food and drink. Shockingly, for beer snobs at least, Langstaff says she would prefer a Budweiser beer over an IPA. It also turns out that expensive wines can be beaten by a standard bottle of plonk (such as Gallo cabernet) in blind taste tests by experts.
The book devotes a good amount of space to the marketing of food and drink; pet food and organ meats are great examples. Roach chronicles fads for mastication, which it turns out has been very much overrated. Her stories of scientists observing the digestion of food directly in people with holes in their sides is a little gruesome, but she makes it enjoyable to read about. There are many aspects of our digestion which turn out to be much more interesting than you might have thought: who knew that both the chemical properties and the mouth's production of saliva could hold the attention so well?
It may be fortunate that there are few illustrations in this book. There are chapters not only on excrement and excreting, constipation and enemas, but also on mealworms in the stomach and people dying from overeating. Some may find all this too much, but you may be surprised by how funny this book is. You may be amazed by the ability of prisoners and smugglers to hide rather large items in their rectums, but Roach's chapter on what triggers excretion will almost certainly provoke you to laughter. Similarly for the several chapters on farting, especially when it gets to the part about explosions. Much of your reaction may stem from discomfort and even horror, but that just makes you laugh harder. The mind boggles at people whose chosen career and joy in life is to research these phenomena, but these are obviously topics of great importance to many.
There is plenty here to delight, and the book is also full of useful information. Apparently you are wasting your time if you try to reduce the smell of your farts by taking pills of activated charcoal -- it does no good. What you need are bismuth pills, available at Devrom tablets, which are have been proven to work, although the company has had difficulty finding publications that will accept their advertising.
The book ends with a remarkable chapter on fecal transplants. You will need to read about it for yourself.
© 2013 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York