“Gulp” by Mary Roach – Book Review by ScienceABC

ScienceABC Rating:

In Mary Roach’s 2013 book, Gulp, the science writer and humorist makes the following statement about your experience of the book: ‘I don’t want you to say, “This is gross.” I want you to say, “I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting.”’

This is a book about our relationship with our guts, the guts of others, and the guts to study our own guts.

Through bizarre, amusing, and sometimes gross stories and anecdotes detailing bold experiments that have changed scientific history, Roach takes us on what can only be described as an amusement park tour of the digestive system. Readers are given plenty of fun facts with which to entertain friends at dinner parties, but there is also a flowing narrative that reflects our deeper human and psychological connections to ourselves. In the belly of this book, every odd question that you might have ever had about your own gut is answered—and then some. Roach’s introductory questions, “Why don’t suicide bomber smuggle bombs in their rectum?”, “Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis?” and “Could thorough chewing lower national debt?” are just the tip of the iceberg.

Roach tackles science with humor. Analogies and metaphors serve as a bridge between more scientifically informed readers (like the undergraduate student sneaking in a read between lectures) and enthusiasts of gut stuff. The science never burdens the reader with information, rather acting like the cement holding her stories together.

The stories are what make the book a pleasure to read. Roach’s voice—a stand-up comic meets your slightly “offbeat” best friend—makes the subject matter, which in places can get heavy, much more palatable. The chapter on the rectum and how much it can distend is told through prisoners and drug mules hiding cargo in their rectum. One might slot this in the section of “difficult topics to write about”, but the tone of voice remains within the realm of curiosity, rather than philosophy or judgment.

Roach approaches the book with a journalistic flair and has a knack for making the scientists, pro-league eaters, spit experts and more seem like a bunch of ragtag circus performers, rather than professionals whose job it is to make data sheets and inspect molecular protein structures.

The book is brief and easy to get through in a single-day marathon, or in a week of paced-out reading.

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This book is historically accurate, but is certainly not historically complete. It also isn’t meant to be so. It looks at history primarily through the lens of Western science and culture, while occasionally branching off into knowledge of other cultures. However, this isn’t a detriment to the book. The author’s goal is to get you to care about the gut, and this book does just that. It will give you a wide range of perspectives, like a tasting menu, primarily developing the main story, that of your gut, while leaving your palate free to mull over the flavors from all the other perspectives on offer.

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