Mary Roach’s books have been on my to-read list for a long time. However, when your job depends on knowing what’s new and great, reading an author’s backlist can be difficult to find time for. Naturally, when Roach’s newest book came out, I jumped at the chance to finally make time for this intriguing writer. Right now I’m kicking myself for not having read her other titles sooner. Everything they say about Mary Roach is true. She’s exactly what a great science author should be: easy to understand, incredibly interesting, and outrageously hilarious. Outrageously.
In a way, I’m glad I waited. Gulp is the perfect follow-up to Salt, Sugar, Fat; It details some of the science that Moss hinted at. Gulp is a scientific exploration of digestion, from start (the nose) to finish, (the toilet). It may sound as though the book could be disgusting, but I assure you, it isn't. Roach makes her intentions clear from the start: she wants to fascinate the reader, not cause disgust (much). In this, she achieves her goal. From the first chapter I was completely engrossed, but never grossed-out.
One of my favorite things about this book were the footnotes she sprinkled liberally throughout the book. They are like little asides to the reader; not quite pertinent to the main subject, but too interesting to be left out. It’s as though I’m sitting next to her in biology class and she is passing me silly notes about the subject until the bell rings. I found them distracting at first, but soon started looking forward to them, as a great tool for sharing extraneous information, without derailing the whole book. Her humor rivals that of David Sedaris and her best jokes are in these little notes. Thankfully, I am not in biology class, so I can giggle freely while reading, which I think Roach probably did as well while writing.*
I do most of my reading during my lunch break at work, which can make reading about digestion and bowel movements less than desirable. However, true to her oath in the introduction, this book isn't gross, it’s interesting. There is so much I never knew about the digestive system, or more importantly, so much I didn't realize I wanted to know about the digestive system. Roach interviews scientists and professionals involved in everything from saliva, to flatulence, to Elvis Presley's doctor. It would seem that Roach has no limits to journalistic inquiry, even emailing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for more information about the possible history of holy water enemas being used in exorcisms.
I would recommend reading this book next to an internet-ready device, because in some cases, Roach can only begin to scratch the surface of the story. I spent a considerable amount of time reading about Horace Fletcher; one chapter simply isn't enough to cover someone like him. The book isn't about Fletcher, Komodo dragons, competitive eating, or any number of equally interesting things Roach talks about; it’s about the science and stories that make up the alimentary canal, thus prompting me to look further into many of the subjects Roach brings up. For someone with an endless appetite for information (example: people who look up one thing on Wikipedia, only to get sucked in for two hours), Roach’s writing style can be dangerous and time consuming, but also heavenly.
Now that I’ve finished Gulp, I can’t wait to dig into that backlist. If Roach can make digestion, gassiness, and saliva this interesting, imagine what she can do with cadavers and superstition. Irresistible!
*Her fascination with names that correspond to professions reached its peak with Dr. Crapo who coined the term “Dung Lung.”