One of the first things I noticed when I started traveling was international differences in public restrooms. In New York City I was met with the conundrum of a city that has everything except restrooms. In China I saw squat toilets for the first time – and refused to use them. Working in a hospital with filthy restrooms has given me a strong bladder. Then, when we hit our first official port for Semester at Sea (Japan) I saw the smartest loos alive.
What a pleasure, then, to read The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters while traveling. (The cover caught my eye – isn’t it wonderful?) Rose George literally goes everywhere with this book. She plunges into the depths of sewer systems in New York and London. She exposes the dirt and grit of the water we consume. And then she travels to the corners of the earth to see how other countries compare.
Did I ever think I would find the history of smart toilets and bidets (a la Japan) even remotely interesting? Nope. But George makes it interesting and I loved it. Expect a journey to the toilet crises of the new South African government, the castes of India and the innovative use of excrement in China.
George even addresses the way we speak about these “products” – excreta, waste, shit… and you might be surprised by her conclusion.
The Big Necessity is an excellent work of research and investigative journalism, and the author is not afraid to get her hands dirty (sorry, that’s a bad pun, isn’t it?). Although science, politics and history feature often, the narrative is never difficult to understand. Oh, and then there’s the wit and humour, which made this one of the most enjoyable works of non-fiction that I have ever read.
This book will enthrall you – and it will break your heart. George does not simply tell us about customs and histories: she introduces us to the people behind the stories. The women who risk sexual assault to relieve themselves, the families who live without anything resembling a rest room, the public health workers who try and try to solve these problems. Despite her candour, George addresses these stories with tact and sensitivity.
I recommend this book to anybody interested in biology and disease, history, mankind, or just a little bit of enlightenment. Also offers incredible insight into different countries if you plan on traveling or consider yourself a traveler.