Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Who would want to read a book about the alimentary canal?

Wait, the author is Mary Roach?

Who wouldn’t want to read it?

After all, eating is one of my favorite activities, and I don’t think I’m the only one. As they say on Arrested Development:

Michael: What do I always say is the most important thing?

George Michael: Breakfast?

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal takes the reader on a journey that follows our food from intake to outgo. Mary Roach just gets better with each book she writes. She’s got a dry sense of humor, but one that would make a 12-year-old boy lose milk up his nose (think body noise jokes if you’re unsure). She is also a tireless researcher. I wish I could ask people the off-the–wall kinds of questions she asks her interviewees.

We start our journey with the food we eat and how we experience it, which is much studied by scientists. Surprisingly, a lot of that experiencing is done through the sense of smell rather than taste. Roach, however, brings the common sense opinion to the table that we don’t actually choose our food based on nutrition but tend to base that selection on other emotions instead.

The author takes a few side trips to see how gastric research was done before sophisticated testing and instruments were available. She starts off with the curious case of Alexis St. Martin who accidentally had part of his side shot away. This left him with an opening to his stomach which never properly healed. His doctor, William Beaumont, was able to view the workings of his stomach through this hole, and insert various food items (eww-dinner and a movie) directly into the stomach to watch the working of the gastric acid.

I’ve never given much thought to saliva, but this book had me fascinated by it. Did you know there are 2 kinds of saliva? It is kind of gross, but these chapters really made me laugh as they described various experiments to measure and classify spit. How fun would it be to visit a spit lab?

The book goes on to describe the rest of the bodily processes that digest our food and convert it to nutrients and eventually waste. I know it seems like I’m gushing, but it was fascinating and often hilarious reading. Bodies are complex. Bodies are also funny and awesome.

One of the doctors interviewed by Roach points out that we should be thankful that our guts have evolved the way they have. The gorilla, a fellow ape, has a digestive system that must ferment the vegetation he eats, and thus is less sophisticated than our own. “He’s processing leaves all day. Just sitting and chewing and cooking inside. There’s no room for great thoughts.” And be thankful you’re not a zombie, because their digestive systems are set up to digest only one thing: brains.

While the topic might seem a bit off-putting at first, after reading Gulp you will find yourself agreeing with the author when she asks:

How is it that we find Christina Aguilera more interesting than the inside of our own bodies?

Be sure to visit A Reading Life for more reviews and news of all things happening at the Everett Public Library.

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