Amazon’s book recommendation algorithm was when it put non-fiction writing by Mary Roach at the top of my “Books you may like” list. For the next month, I read three of her books in a row, each finished faster than the previous. These books read like science textbooks, that is, if our favorite author wrote them. Each paragraph is balanced carefully with scientific data and entertainment value.
This was my introduction to Mary Roach’s dark and quick-witted humor. I never thought learning about our digestive system could be so riveting. I devoured this book, pun intended. Gulp examines the intricate steps of how we digest food. Did you know that how much you chew doesn’t matter to how much that piece of meat is digested? One of the most vivid anecdotes from the book is of a doctor who wanted to see what happened when you put food directly into a person’s stomach. This doctor dude literally stuck a piece of chicken on a stick into another guy who had an opening in his stomach. After some time, the doctor would take out the stick, and the chicken’s meat would have dissolved and what was left were the bones.
Other interesting things you learn from the book:
- Laundry detergent is made up of digestive enzymes, similar to those in your mouth.
- There was a fad diet in the 1900s called “Fletcherizing” (named after its inventor, Horace Fletcher), which said that you could gain more nutrients from food if you chewed it a hundred times. This is not true.
- How people have smuggled things into prison by eating it or “fitting” it in a certain lower region of our body
- Constipation may have been the cause of Elvis Presley’s death.
After I finished Gulp, Amazon recommended me to read Stiff, which is about cadavers. Wonderful. Moving from eating to dead bodies.
Of the three books, this one was the most captivating, perhaps because it is the most taboo. Roach unveils the controversial world of the cadaver business: the grotesque, the complex legal issues, and most importantly, its salient role in science. I learned about the typical topics I expected such as how bodies are handled after the person dies and the benefit cadavers provide to anatomy students. I learned about the term, beating heart cadavers, where the person is braindead, but still has a beating heart. By legal and medical definition, beating heart cadavers are considered dead.
Here are why cadavers are useful to furthering the lives of the living:
- Surgery practice for medical students
- Transplants to living persons
- Crash tests
- Testing the damage of bullets and weapons
If there’s one thing that I’ve taken away from the book, it’s that I will definitely donate my body to science.
Now, onto a lighter, but not less controversial topic: sex. What is it that make women orgasm? What kind of male enhancements are there? And even, how are farm animals inseminated? Whatever question you’ve wondered about sex, I’m fairly confident the book touched upon it.
Roach takes us through a historic journey on how people in different cultures have approached sex and orgasm. There was a period of time when masturbation was said to cause everything from impotence to blindness to heart disease to insanity to suppurating pustules on the face.
As part of Roach’s primary research, she visits Dr. Ahmed Shafid in Egypt, who clandestinely conducts sex research in a country known for being conservative. He hires prostitutes to participate in his studies. In one study, he dressed rats in either polyester or cotton pants. Results were that rats that wore polyester had sex less than those that wore cotton.
In tandem with her research on sexual acts itself, Roach also studies how scientists have conducted orgasm and sex research. In the earlier days, these researchers would use themselves or friends as test subjects. Now, there are MRI machines that take videos and can see your organs at work while in the act. In fact, Roach describes her awkward participation in such sex research with an MRI machine. She convinced her Ed to be her counterpart.
What I walked away with from this reading is that there are surprisingly many unknowns about orgasm and sex. It’s a subject that we’re all curious about and something most of us will experience in our lifetime. Yet, the stigma around research on sex and orgasm has hindered our ability to fully understand its mechanics. Perhaps this is why this book was my least favorite: I didn’t learn as much as I did with the others. Nonetheless, it’s a fun read. I recommend reading it on an airplane where the person next to you can glance over and see that all your pages are covered with the word “sex” and “orgasm.”