The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters
By Rose George
Metropolitan Books, 288 pages, $26
Let’s not be clever. The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, Rose George’s perfectly disquieting new book, is very good.
How do I know? Because as I sat reading it in a small park in my Manhattan neighborhood, I became acutely aware that the soaring condos surrounding me were only possible because they served as chutes for the disposal of human excrement: All around me thousands of gallons of human waste and wastewater plummeted to the earth to be swallowed by New York City’s perennially overtaxed sewer system. It was like seeing through to the Matrix. I was suddenly a filthy-minded Roquentin. Not a pleasant experience. To flush or not to flush became a question of moral courage, or cowardice.
I realize that what I’ve just written is not so much an analytical or aesthetic judgment as it is a visceral response, but that’s all part of Ms. George’s plan. As she notes, “Anyone who doesn’t find excrement disgusting risks contracting twenty-five diarrheal diseases from getting too close to it.” So we stay away—in the first world we have plumbing to shield our bodies and euphemisms to shield our psyches—but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the issue of human waste as a ubiquitous and eternal problem. With wit, narrative skill and compassion, The Big Necessity, all feculent humor aside, re-humanizes shit, allowing us to examine a major international public health nuisance.
LET’S STAY CLOSE to home for a moment, though. New York’s sewage system, Ms. George writes, is “heinously expensive to maintain and upgrade, excessively wasteful of
And we’ve got it good: Screening out the lumps is a luxury.
Debilitating fecal contamination of
According to Ms. George, contaminated
Nothing about this is mysterious. If nothing else—and there’s plenty else—instinct tells us that feces in
That’s not to say that the book is all gloom and doom or a ponderous drag. In fact, it’s a breeze. Ms. George is a lucid, supple writer, and approaching the subject as a journalist, she’s able to tell her story on several different registers. And, quite honestly, the topic is fascinating. From the fecal transplant (let’s not discuss, please) to the politics of the public toilet to the Japanese obsession with toilets more sophisticated than most cars, the book abounds with creepy and compelling tales that blur the boundaries between health, fear, etiquette, custom and revulsion.
As Rose George writes, “To be uninterested in the … toilet is to be uninterested in life.”
Michael Washburn is the assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He can be reached at email@example.com.