Book Review: ‘Gulp’ by Mary Roach

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary CanalGulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve enjoyed everything else by Mary Roach I’ve read—she tends to focus on the unsung heroes of science, the ones that explore the weird niches that are either not glamorous enough for media attention (Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void) or that explore areas affected by societal taboos (Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, this one).

If you’re looking for the basics of how the human digestive tract works, I have an MCAT prep CD I can lend you. Seriously, this isn’t the book if all you want are the basic facts, although it’s hard to discuss a guy with flammable burps without mentioning the pyloric sphincter, or what creates flatulence without touching chemistry, or how crispiness works without physics.

So yes, there is science here, but it’s mostly not the bare-bones informative stuff I half expected (I’m not sure why, I’ve read the books listed above and I should know better). This is really a narrative about people researching things that are, sometimes, insanely important but which don’t have the appeal or funding potential of diseases like cancer. (Fecal transplants are included in this book. I’m so happy, they’re amazing. Can’t believe they’ve been around for so long and are only now getting FDA attention.)

The narrative keeps from being disjointed by moving steadily downward through the body, starting with taste, which is primarily olfaction, and then on to digestion (sorry esophagus! Although I’m not complaining that vomiting didn’t get a whole chapter) and then on to the really good bits, which all happen below the small intestine and appeal to my less-than-inner five-year-old.

Considering that I stopped to eat a delicious crisp Asian pear halfway through (coincidentally after the section on crispiness), the ick factor is minimal. But I do like poking organs, so, well.

Roach spends a fair bit of time trying to undercut the grossness. I will say now that reading about this stuff doesn’t bother me at all, although sensitive nose = keep it away and also I don’t want to be around other people’s bodily fluids, generally speaking. Anyway, the frequent almost-apologizing for the topic is about the only thing that got to me in ‘Bonk,’ and it takes on a different tone here: she alternates between an academic tone and casual banter. There are a lot of silly jokes, which are indeed fun—Roach is a fun writer—but occasionally they feel out of place, and the balance between the science and the humor is sometimes tenuous.

People are reading this book because they want to, so I wish she wouldn’t try as hard to commiserate on the ‘ew this is gross’ stuff; it works when she mentions that Dr. Nichopoulous’ daughter must think they’re weird, shooting the breeze about Elvis’ bowel issues, and less well when it’s just an aside to the reader. Hey, I’m here because I think this is awesome, too! And also I would like those Mylar pantaloons. I wish the book came with image plates of some of the stuff described, they’re on a whole other level of ‘want.’

Oh, and one more note: Roach does a really nice job of bringing up pseudoscience. Especially with all the crap (ha, ha) floating around on the Internet, it’s important to get your science from actual scientists. Old ideas on fixing things like removing bits of healthy colon and then galvanizing come up, as well as more modern nostrums such as probiotics (the label is dumb, and also placebo effect). So that’s awesome too. It’s garbage science spread around by celebrities that’s increasing infant mortality rates in the US and UK (ever heard of herd immunity?) so we could use more popular books that call it out.

The scientists who do this work totally deserve more attention than they get, and massive kudos to Roach for dedicating a book to them. One of her best qualities is taking on seemingly weird subjects and revealing, instead, that they’re important to all of us, not just money-draining curiosities.

View all my reviews

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