Book rec: Gulp by Mary Roach

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Mary Roach is the kind of nonfiction writer who can make any topic fascinating. No, really, anything. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is a book about the digestive system, covering topics from the nutritional value of dog food to the optimal decibel level of crunchy snack foods to the stain-fighting properties of saliva. At one point she puts her hand inside of a cow’s stomach. There’s an entire chapter about smuggling drugs inside your rectum.

Roach has a history of finding the absurdity in science. Her other books, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife; Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex; and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void are all playful but by no means disrespectful looks at serious topics. She gets very in depth with her research and isn’t afraid to ask occasionally embarrassing questions of the experts.

 

This suggests that saliva—or better yet, infant drool—could be used to pretreat food stains. Laundry detergents boast about the enzymes they contain. Are these literally digestive enzymes? I sent an e-mail to the American Cleaning Institute, which sounds like a cutting edge research facility but is really just a trade group formerly and less spiffily known as the Soap and Detergent Association.

 

With no detectable appreciation for the irony of what he had written, press person Brian Sansoni referred me to a chemist named Luis Spitz. And when Dr. Spitz replied, “Sorry, I only know soap-related subjects,” Sansoni—still without a trace of glee—gave me the phone number of a detergent industry consultant named Keith Grime.

Gulp is a book that’ll give you a new understanding of your own internal workings, and if you haven’t read anything by Roach before, it’ll probably act as a gateway drug into everything else she’s ever done. I highly recommend it.

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