Gulp – Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

I thought that I should start this recommendation with a confession: I think I am in love with Mary Roach. Never mind that we have never met, are both happily married to men, and probably have incompatible pets – I just know, deep down, that we are soul mates. I know this because I just read two of her books, and have 2 more on hold. I can’t stop.

I put Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers on hold years ago when it came out, but somehow, despite the fact that it sounded fascinating, it wound up being due back at the library before I had started it. What with one book and another getting in the way, I’ve been meaning to read it (and several of her books since), but until I received my audio copy of Gulp a few weeks ago, I hadn’t gotten to her. Now I can only say: I know what I have been missing, and I am so happy that I let her get ahead a few books so I have plenty to read for the next few months.

Now that that background fluff is out of the way, we can get on to the reasons you want to read this book. Gulp is a fascinating tour of the human digestive system. It begins with the teeth, tongue, and salivary glands, then takes you down the esophagus to the stomach, through the small intestine to the colon, then on to…well, the end, explaining what function each part performs. Throughout the book she tells the reader not only what scientists know about digestion so far, but what they still want to know and are trying to find out, and describes some of the truly bizarre ways our knowledge has increased over the years. Oh, and most importantly for Elvis fans, she tells you all about Elvis’s megacolon. Yes, you read that right. The King died on the commode for a reason.

I liked this book so much that I put Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers on hold once again, and am currently finishing listening to Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void in the car. So far Packing For Mars is living up to my inflated Mary Roach hyperbole that follows.

The thing that makes Mary Roach’s books worth reading is her storytelling style. Imagine you know someone who is so insatiably curious about everything that she devotes her life to hunting down experts on her pet subjects and asking them uncomfortable and embarrassing questions that you wouldn’t dare to ask. She puts herself in the weirdest situations to fully understand her subject, and what makes her interviewees tick. (In Gulp, she eats narwhal, reaches into the stomach of a cow, and has a colonoscopy stone-cold sober so she can see her colon. In Packing For Mars, she takes a zero gravity flight and drinks her own filtered urine.) Then, after she has learned every obscure (and often disgusting) detail about a subject, she distills just the interesting parts for you while interjecting hilarious stories about these experiences and interviews. I swear, her footnotes are the best part of her books. Go read one of her books. Now. Or better yet, listen to it – the reader of Gulp is just the right degree of snarky.

Read-Alikes? The closest authors I can pick are Henry Alford and maybe Simon Winchester, though Alford is higher in snark and less research-obsessed, while Winchester goes the other way. If it turns out that you like Roach’s books, try watching her TED talk – she is a nervous speaker, but still very interesting. (Warning: Probably NSFW.)


One thought on “Gulp – Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

  1. Mary Post author

    I just finished listening to Stiff in the car. It’s not as compelling as the others, probably because the subject of dead bodies is less interesting to me than space or bodily functions, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. (Worth every minute just for the joke about the Harvard Brain Bank.) Score another win for Mary Roach.


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