If you want to know everything that happens to a piece of food between the grocery store and the toilet, these are the books you want to read. But in a fight between Gulp, by Mary Roach and Gut, by Giulia Enders, which will come out on top?
Gut is the technical genius of the two books. Quick and focused, it starts with the mouth and works its way down. See that? That’s a taste receptor. That’s a loop of henle. That’s the inner surface of the lower intestine. As you move around you get an exact picture of what space you’re going through and what you see as you go through it. The only way to have a better procession from one end of a person to another is to actually be food.
Enders has a good eye for the interesting details in each part of the body. She points out that the saliva in a person’s mouth is actually strained and filtered blood. She knows to mention that the compounds in saliva, and fossilized bacteria, build up as tartar on the teeth. And when things get a bit complicated, Gut has illustrations that have just enough substance to be helpful and just enough style to not look like something out of Gray’s Anatomy. It’s easy to see why Gut became a bestseller. The book knows what it wants to do, and it accomplishes just that.
Gulp is not spare, it is not technically perfect. Instead it goes the other way, loading itself with personality and more than a little strangeness. Roach, as she does in most of her books, isn’t mounting an expedition so much as wandering around an area, focusing in on one strange thing about it, and going deep.
Her writing is experiential, so we go with her on tours of facilities that explore taste, visit records facilities that hold the detritus of old experiments, and talk to experts about the things that obsess them. Her writing also focuses on the weird, so instead of examining the standard of what goes on inside us, we get the nonstandard. We learn how we might torment our cats by giving them a “variety” of foods when they prefer continuity, and how pet food companies compensate for that. We learn how people who smuggle things into and out of prison in various parts of their digestive system become self-taught experts on the human body. Gulp goes spinning off in a different direction each chapter, bobbing and weaving instead of moving in a straight line to one destination.
I’m afraid that you can’t beat the Ali x-factor. Of the two books, Gulp is more imaginative and more playful. By going off-piste, Mary Roach gives us anecdotes and facts that help us see our own bodies in new ways and answers questions we didn’t even know we had. By tying the content of each chapter to events that happen outside our bodies—from the death of Elvis to feeding our pets—Roach makes sure that what we learn in each chapter stays with us long after we’ve finished reading.
It’s a tough fight. This is Enders’ first book, so going up against Mary Roach, The Titan of Nonfiction, who has written books like Packing for Mars, Bonk, Stiff, and Spook, is hardly fair. But then, if this comparison ever even comes to her attention she can dry her tears on the royalty checks she’s no doubt getting from her tremendously (and rightly) successful first foray into nonfiction.
Ali Image:Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989