Author: Rose George
Title: The big necessity : the unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters
Publication Info: New York : Metropolitan Books, 2008.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Ninety Percent of Everything
This is a book about shit, the author’s preferred term since etymologically it is the only term that uses no euphemism. While someone like Mary Roach would find humor in a global expose on human waste and toilets, George is serious about the deleterious effects of tens of millions of people in the world lacking sanitation. George tours the decaying sewers of London and New York, and learns more about Japan’s toilets that wash and dry the users bottom (which despite being though of as needlessly luxurious in the West are actually better for health, cleanliness and the environment than wiping with paper). The crux of this book is the developing world, places like China, India, South Africa and Tanzania where there are stories of using waste as biogas, attempts to shame people for open defecation, and the uphill battle of charitable organizations to develop proper sanitation for all in a world that would rather not discuss such things. This book is at times difficult to read, but I think it’s an important investigation into a topic we can’t ignore.
“Anthropologists and sociologists should be infesting public bathrooms. There’s nothing else in human society quite like them. Not in society, not quite out of it. Needed but rarely demanded. A place where all sorts of human needs and habits intersect: fear, disgust, conversation, grooming, sex. It’s an ambiguous space that is not quite in the public eye, though the public uses it. A place of refuge and sociability, of necessity and criminality. How we are allowed to behave in a public necessity even influences everyday speech. Steven Pinker, in his explanation of taboo words, quotes a spectrum of excreta-related swearing. Shit is less acceptable than piss, which is less acceptable than fart. And so on through to snot and spit, ‘which is not taboo at all. That’s the same order as the acceptability of eliminating these substances from the body in public.'”
Recommended books: Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William L. Rathje and Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder