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Book Review: "The Big Book of Gross Stuff"

By It's My Life on March 10, 2010 3:19 PM | No TrackBacks

Quick: what do you think of when you hear the word "gross"?

Is it something that comes out of or is on the human body? Is it something you find somewhere? Is it just the concept of something?

Gross can be scary. Or nauseating. Or intriguing. Or hilarious. It can also teach us a lot about our attitudes and interests.

gross_stuff.jpgThat's why we were happy to find "The Big Book of Gross Stuff" by Bart King (Gibbs Smith). We don't really need to summarize it for you. It's a book. It's big. It's full of gross stuff. That means definitions, history, stories, fun facts and, of course, illustrations. Everything you could possibly want to know about everything gross...and then some. We can see this book as the kind of thing you'd bring to a sleepover party to giggle over, or as a place to find topics for a school report or science experiment. At the very least, it's something you'll probably read a bit of, then stop and read that bit aloud to the nearest person, because they just have to hear it.

IML talked to Bart about the book and about grossness in general:

IML: In the book, you talk a little about what makes something "gross" and how Gross Stuff is pretty much the same across most cultures. But has Gross Stuff changed with the times? Is it different now than what was considered gross say, 100 years ago? Has technology introduced a whole new collection of gross things?

Bart: On one hand, we are now exposed to more "fake" gross stuff than at any time in history. Our video games, movies, and TV shows can all show the latest in gruesome special effects. And technology's impact on gross stuff can even be seen with cell phones. Even a mini-app like iFart might make us less sensitive to how we feel about things like flatulence.

On the other hand, we're more cut off from the world's "real" gross stuff than ever before. Our sewage systems are so advanced that we have just the briefest encounters with our urine and poop. Most adults have never seen an animal slaughtered, much less a dead human. It wasn't that long ago that even really young children had experiences with all of these things. ("Junior, go clean the outhouse. Then slaughter a pig and bury your Uncle Jed!")

IML: The definition of what's gross can differ a little from culture to culture...and it also differs from person to person. Besides cultural influences, what else helps each of us decide that something is gross?

Bart: Disgust can come from two places: Your body or your mind. In your body, you have something called a "gut brain." This is a nerve network running through your digestive system with more neurons than your spinal cord. The gut brain allows us to "feel" the inner world of our digestion, and it can send warning signals if anything is going wrong.

So if you get butterflies in your stomach from looking over a cliff, that's your gut brain telling you to step back. And if you feel sick because you ate a piece of pizza from last week, that's your gut brain letting you know that it might be ejecting some pizza dough!

As for the mind, I think that most people have a "pet grossness." This is like a pet peeve. It's that slightly odd something that grosses them out. For example, I can't stand spitwads and other small, wet pieces of paper. I know they're not dangerous, but they really disgust me! I interviewed an emergency-room doctor who gets REALLY grossed out by athlete's foot. And my wife is sickened by the sound of someone chewing noisily, which doesn't bug me at all. *blows bubble while typing*

IML: What we loved about your book is that talking about Gross Stuff actually makes it seem...less gross. It takes the stigma and tension out of it, in a way. If we feel grossed out by something, should we try to get over it?

Bart: It's a good idea to examine ALL of our attitudes, even those about gross stuff. This process keeps us open minded and gives us a wider perspective on the world. And with gross stuff, I think it helps us recognize that many of our attitudes are things we can change. In fact, if I try, I might be able to make a spitwad right NOW. *thinks about putting small piece of paper in mouth* Nope. But even if we can't remove our blinders, just knowing that they are there in the first place makes us much more aware of the big picture.

IML: There's a lot of trivia and great stories in the book. How much research did you do while writing it? Where did you find all this information?

I'm a very curious person. So I really enjoy researching and trying to learn as much about my subject as possible. For this book, I got my hands on any book I could that might prove helpful, and I also enlisted the help of librarians to ferret out the most interesting research on topics like body odor. (My favorite was the two-year study that found men's b.o. smells like cheese while women's smells like onions!)

The research and writing took me about a year, and now, "The Big Book of Gross Stuff" has an extensive bibliography of my references at the end. I include this partly to show my legwork, and mostly so that people don't think I'm just making things up!

IML: Do you think it's better to NOT know what something is made of, if that includes stuff that would totally gross us out? Or is ignorance bliss?

Bart: I hate to sit on a fence -- it's painful! -- but the answer to this question is that it depends on the situation. I do want to know EXACTLY what's in my food. That way I can make a decision about what I'm eating instead of just shoving food down my throat. People who pay attention to their food, especially for ethical reasons, feel the same way. For example, vegetarians don't believe ignorance is bliss. They are NOT going to be happy if they find gristle in their vegetable stew! But is ANYBODY ever happy to find gristle?

BOY: "Mommy, I found the lucky gristle!"
MOM: "Yay! Did you hear that, everyone? Get the cake!"

Of course, if I were actually starving (and very few Americans are), I'd rather just shove food down my throat. So this answer was a long way of saying that ignorance is usually just ignorance! And there is nothing blissful about not knowing.

IML: What's the grossest thing that you, personally, have ever seen?

Bart: I don't mind if someone has food on or between their teeth. Some poppy seeds? No worries. A chunk of chive? I can look away! But the other day, I was talking to someone who had an unidentified, generic white thing between his teeth. Was it sourdough bread? Plaque? Paper? Gristle? Thinking about it now gives me the shivers! Ugh...So thanks very much for that question.

Bart King is also the author of "The Big Book of Girl Stuff" and "The Big Book of Boy Stuff."

IML's Rating: A

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