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The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters Hardcover – October 14, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; First Edition edition (October 14, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805082719
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805082715
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (80 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #313,032 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. With irreverence and pungent detail, George (A Life Removed) breaks the embarrassed silence over the economic, political, social and environmental problems of human waste disposal. Full of fascinating facts about the evolution of material culture as influenced by changing mores of disgust and decency (the popularity of high-heeled shoes dates back to the time when chamber pots were emptied into the streets)—the book shows how even advanced technology doesn't always meet basic needs: using toilet paper is shockingly unhygienic and millions of government-built latrines in developing countries have been turned into goat sheds and spare rooms due to poor design, a lack of regular water supply or simply because the subsidized (and expensive) cement and stone structures are often more appealing than the village huts. George explores how discussions on the importance of clean drinking water and the eradication of infectious diseases euphemistically address how to handle human waste. From the depths of the world's oldest surviving urban sewers in to Japan's robo-toilet revolution, George leads an intrepid, erudite and entertaining journey through the public consequences of this most private behavior. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School—London and New York sewer tunnels, Japan's robotic toilet industry, farming innovations in China, and the politics of public sanitation in India—past and present—are treated with forthright investigation, sensitivity to intercultural relations and experiences, and high good humor. The effects of urban living on people who don't have sufficient human-waste disposal systems include not only diseases, but also social constructions that follow them beyond their portable brick latrines and backside-cleansing tools. The privacy that Westerners have grown to insist on as part of the toileting experience hampers travelers in parts of the world where toilet stalls don't have doors, let alone where toilets don't have stalls. George interviewed locals, social reformers, engineers, and bureaucrats in search of filling in the details of the picture she creates, making this a thorough, highly informative, and thought-provoking account. Her writing style is a delight, assuring her a faithful audience even while she discusses topics most commonly left unspoken and unwritten about. Teens may pick this up first for the gross-out factor but will find it a wealth of scientific and political intrigue.—Francisca Goldsmith, Halifax Public Libraries, Nova Scotia
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

I enjoyed reading this well written and informative book.
Duo Cycler
This book is interesting in the way that books about things we don't really want to thing about always are.
Michael Okey
A great deal of George's book is not about people with toilets and sewers.
R. Hardy

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

79 of 82 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover
What if you learned that a particular problem was causing 80% of the illness in the world and was killing a child every fifteen seconds? Would you want to find out more, and insist that governments and the world do more, to improve the problem? What if you learned that one of the big reasons that governments and the world aren't doing more is that the problem is, well, yucky, and people don't like talking or thinking about it? There are blunter words for the problem, and Rose George uses them; the problem is feces. It is the topic of her book _The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste_ (Metropolitan Books), a sobering and eye-opening account of just how badly the world handles this one great and inevitable problem. Most of the people who read this book will be among the set that uses flush commodes which connect to sewers and treatment plants, considered the tops in fecal disposal. But 2.6 billion people lack not only toilets, but also lack latrines or outhouses or even a bucket. Toilets and sewage treatments have their problems, covered here, but with billions of people who literally have no place to go, feces wind up all over the place, easily getting into food and water and causing misery. George has been to sewers of huge cities, wandered excrement-coated slum streets, experimented with public toilets in rural china, and visited the workers who clean sewers or empty pits. There is humor here (not much of the toilet variety) and well-crafted explanation and description, but it is not overall a pretty picture. If you don't want to think about this problem, that's just the problem.

Toilets, if a culture has them, are only a starting point.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By James Charnock on April 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When I was young and living in very rural farm country and adventuring in the woods or hills and had to take a dump, I did what everyone else did: squatted, made some crap, wiped myself with a few leaves or a handful of grass, and moved on. (If the foregoing language disturbs you, then don't read this book; it's just as graphic, especially in the latter part.)

Now, imagine the teeming, close-living tens of millions in the slums and cities of developing countries--and even growing India--where, today, open defecation (that's the "polite" word, which is not that often used in the book) is the socially acceptable and often economically-necessary thing to do. Because it's cheap. There are no sewer systems, few toilets or even working public or private pit latrines. And where does this excreta go--be it India, Africa, China, Tibet, Mexico and even lesser sanitary places? Into the streets, ponds, rivers, oceans and even drinking water. Multi-tons of it everyday.

In some African countries, Tanzania and Kenya are two examples, the cheapest latrine is a plastic bag: "defecate, wrap, and throw. Anywhere will do, though roofs are a favorite" (pg. 210). Millions upon millions of people world wide have to make a choice when it comes to ridding themselves of excrement: "contaminating the environment or contaminating human settlement" (pg 222).

This book is shocking, but it has to be. Fortunately, in the beginning, the author spares us the worst part of the history (and history-in-the-making) of sanitation by discussing the glories of the sewer systems in Britain and the U.S. Then, she moves to other parts of the world.
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on December 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Although I have often read in the bathroom, I never thought to read such an interesting and, dare I say it, entertaining book about defecation and waste removal and treatment.

All humor aside (and I guess its taboo is why one feels compelled to try to be humorous about this subject), this is actually a very serious subject. The author tells us how the creation of sewage systems, and flush toilets, has probably led to a hugh improvement in life expectancy, since fecal related illness was, and remains in most of the world, the biggest killer (especially of little children, the elderly, and the immuno-compromised).

It is astounding to learn that most people don't even have outhouses, but must just squat where they can. The desease ramifications of this simple fact are enormous, and not humorous at all. Suddenly, the reader runs into some very sobering facts.

On a personal level, I don't think I'll ever put grease down the sink again, after reading about those (literally) walls of grease in the sewers. Her walk through a sewer amazed me and, for the first time, I realized that the people that do this work routinely are a bit heroic, putting life and limb at risk for our public health. I do recall that when I lived in Louisville, KY years ago, the sewers exploded when a factory emptied some chemical down the drain. This is very dangerous.

I recommend this book absolutely.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By E. A. Lovitt HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on February 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What is the cheapest toilet in developing countries? It is a plastic bag. "Kenyans call them helicopter toilets. Tanzanians prefer flying toilets. Whatever the name, the technique is the same..." Go. Wrap. Throw.

The plastic bag is one step up from open defecation, which according to the author, is still widely practiced in India.

We live in what the author calls a `flushed and plumbed' nation. It is hard to believe that 2.6 billion people must do without a toilet--what the U.N. delicately refers to as `access to clean water.' However, we Americans shouldn't be congratulating ourselves on our bathroom habits. Really advanced countries like Japan think that toilet paper is gross. "Japanese toilets can, variously, check your blood pressure, play music, wash and dry your [back and front parts] by means of an in-toilet nozzle that sprays water and warm air, suck smelly ions from the air, switch on a light for you...put the seat lid down for you (a function known as the `marriage-saver'), and flush away your excreta without requiring anything as old-fashioned as a tank."

"The Big Necessity" is a serious book about "the unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters." Rose George, its author is by turns courageous, humorous (although she tries hard to avoid potty jokes), and indefatigable. Different chapters find her exploring the sewage disposal systems (or lack thereof) in Thailand, China, India, Africa, and even the sewers of London (37,000 miles) and New York (6,000 miles).

She also has a genius for the telling anecdote: when describing a slum family in Nehru Nagar, India she says: "They had one dim room for six people, smaller than the average American parking space...
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