October 26, 2006

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Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization, by W. Hodding Carter (Atria Books, 2006, 241 pages)

So are most of us. So am I. Despite what I hear about the joys of getting back to nature and spending a week camping in the woods, I don't equate any situation where I don't have access to a flush toilet to "vacation." But I have never gone on trips specifically to look at plumbing (or in the case of India, the lack thereof). And I have never invited people over to my house specifically so they can make use of my toilet. These are just two of the ways Carter and I differ.

The other is that while I'm likely to talk about the "facilities" or the "ladies room" where one "takes care of things," Carter revels in the idea of the toilet and pooping. He thinks our squeamishness about the the toilet is just silly. We all poop and, for large stretches of time, our limited ability to deal with our poop made us sick, polluted our major waterways and made our homes and cities stink to high heavens.

In Flushed, Carter looks at plumbing, not just the introduction of water into the house but the eventual ability to send stuff out of the house as well. From the hidden (from sight, not so much from smell) chamber pots to Carter's own Toto Washlet S300, also known as the Jasmin, which features an antibacterial coating on its heated plastic seat, a deodorizer that "actually restructures the stinky molecules into less odorous ones" and a warm-water bidet. Carter, obsessed as he is with plumbing, has not only purchased one of these insane contraptions but he invites friends over to use it and give him a report of their experience.

The more he explains, examines and investigates his obsession, however, the more we appreciate it. Yes, poop is not usually your first choice for a dinner conversation topic, but perhaps poop and helping our friends in the third world better deal with their poop needs to spend a little more time at the top of our discussion lists, especially on a national and international level. During a trip to India, Carter investigates attempts to build more and more efficient toilets that cut down on pollution to land and drinking water and cut down on the need for people (in this case the still oppressed caste of untouchables) to manually take care of waste. Here plumbing is not just about comfort but about improving health and economic wellbeing of a country heady stuff for poop talk.

Like many a short non-fiction book, Flushed is at its best when it blends geeky insight and lively writing with Carter's passion and the fruits of his exhaustive research. He is able to distill the Roman obsession with plumbing (like most things Roman, their plumbing took existing ideas and made them grander) into a lively chapter that includes a trip to modern Bath as well as a truly nerdy attempt by Carter to learn more about their pipes by building one of his own. This section helps to demonstrate the level of Carter's obsession with this topic. Like all true obsessions, his limitless interest in plumbing started because he had plumbing problems he had to solve (ownership of an old New England house is apparently fertile literary ground). After learning how to fix (sort of) some of his home's problems, he wanted to learn more and through Flushed he shares that knowledge with us, giving us yet another reason not to want to live in the middle ages and a new appreciation of the cultural significance of plumbers. Plus, Carter loves nothing better than a good poop joke. B+

Amy Diaz