Summary and book reviews of Gulp by Mary Roach


Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

by Mary Roach

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  • First Published:
    Apr 2013, 336 pages
    Apr 2014, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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About this Book

Book Summary

The irresistible, ever-curious, and always best-selling Mary Roach returns with a new adventure to the invisible realm we carry around inside.

"America's funniest science writer" (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on a unforgettable tour of our insides. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions inspired by our insides are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find names for flavors and smells? Why doesn't the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? We meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks - or has the courage - to ask. And we go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a bacteria transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal.

Like all of Roach's books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies. 15 illustrations


In 1968, on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, six young men undertook an irregular and unprecedented act. Despite the setting and the social climate of the day, it involved no civil disobedience or mind-altering substances. Given that it took place in the nutritional sciences department, I cannot even say with confidence that the participants wore bell-bottomed pants or sideburns of unusual scope. I know only the basic facts: the six men stepped inside a metabolic chamber and remained for two days, testing meals made from dead bacteria.

This was the fevered dawn of space exploration; NASA had Mars on its mind. A spacecraft packed with all the food necessary for a two-year mission would be impracticably heavy to launch. Thus there was a push to develop menu items that could be "bioregenerated," that is to say, farmed on elements of the astronauts' waste. The title of the paper nicely sums the results: "Human Intolerance to Bacteria as Food." ...

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BookBrowse Review


For those who have not read Mary Roach books before, Gulp is a good place to start. In her signature style, she has framed her singular subject with humor, unwavering curiosity, offbeat research and quirky facts. Her dry wit, approachable tone, and careful dollops of academic research make for a book that feels familiar, but also startlingly fresh and innovative.   (Reviewed by Elizabeth Whitmore Funk).

Full Review Members Only (591 words).

Media Reviews

The Washington Post

You’ll come away from this well-researched book with enough weird digestive trivia to make you the most interesting guest at a certain kind of cocktail party…Go ahead and put this one in your carry-on. You won’t regret it.

Seattle Times

One of my top criteria for pronouncing a book worthwhile is the number of times you snort helplessly with laughter and say, “Wow! Did you know that ... ” before your long-suffering spouse throws a book at you from across the room. My personal spouse says that, in this department, “Gulp” takes the cake.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Never before has the process of eating been so very interesting…. After digesting her book, you can’t help but think about what that really means.

The Smithsonian

A witty, woving romp of a book… Roach…is a thoroughly unflappable, utterly intrepid investigator of the icky.

Chicago Tribune

“Roach is a gift to all those unsung researchers with weird curiosities...When Roach talks about her visits to various laboratories, I picture her received as a celebrity, the one person who gets it, the outsider who will teach the world to appreciate the distant exurbs of human curiosity. At this she succeeds admirably.

Kirkus Reviews

A touchy topic illuminated with wit and rigor, packed with all the stinky details.

New York Times Book Review

“There is much to enjoy about Mary Roach—her infectious aw for quirky science and its nerdy adherents, her one-liners... She is beloved, and justifiably so.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Roach's approach is grounded in science, but the virtuosic author rarely resists a pun, and it's clear she revels in giving readers a thrill - even if it is a queasy one. Adventurous kids and doctors alike will appreciate this fascinating and sometimes ghastly tour of the gastrointestinal system. 18 illus.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Filled with witty asides, humorous anecdotes, and bizarre facts, this book will entertain readers, challenge their cultural taboos, and simultaneously teach them new lessons in digestive biology.

New York Times

Far and away her funniest and most sparkling book, bringing Ms. Roach’s love of weird science to material that could not have more everyday relevance. . . . Never has Ms. Roach’s affinity for the comedic and bizarre been put to better use. . . . “Gulp” is structured as a vastly entertaining pilgrimage down the digestive tract, with Ms. Roach as the wittiest, most valuable tour guide imaginable.

The Wall Street Journal

[A] merry foray into the digestive sciences….Inexorably draws the reader along with peristaltic waves of history and vividly described science.

Author Blurb Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works and The Better Angels of Our Nature
Once again Roach boldly goes where no author has gone before, into the sciences of the taboo, the macabre, the icky, and the just plain weird. And she conveys it all with a perfect touch: warm, lucid, wry, sharing the unavoidable amusement without ever resorting to the cheap or the obvious. Yum!

Author Blurb Carl Zimmer, author of Evolution: Making Sense of Life and Parasite Rex
Mary Roach put her hand in a cow’s stomach for you, dear reader. If you don't read Gulp, then that was all for naught. Plus, you'll miss out on the funniest book ever written about guts.

Reader Reviews

Patrick Kraft

small laugh
I tend not to be a fan of non fiction books, but I had to read one for an English project. Then I'm in a book club and our club adviser recommended Gulp, and I ended up loving it. 10 out of 5 in my book. (puns) :)

Becky H

GULP by Mary Roach
I always learn something when I read one of Roach’s books. And I usually am laughing when I learn it! Roach has a great (some would say twisted) sense of humor (don’t overlook the footnotes!) that enlivens a book that could be deadly dull. Never ...   Read More

Diane S.

Entertaining science, wish she had been my chemistry teacher in High School instead of the monosyllabic Mr. Worth, who I unfortunately had. Some of this is boring for sure, but some is just fascinating, some is oh so gross, but some is interesting ...   Read More

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Popular Science Journalism

Gulp is a book about the digestive system. Describe it this way and your friends are probably unlikely to read it. But if they're aware of the ways Mary Roach approaches her content by incorporating anecdotes, focusing on the unusual details, and including the memorable characters who have peppered her research, the whole experience becomes much more worthwhile.

Malcolm Gladwell The genre of popular science writing lies between academic literature and personal narrative. While Roach's particular brand of quirkiness is unique, a growing number of popular science writers are making the genre accessible to millions of readers. Among the contemporaries are Oliver Sacks, Dr. Atul Gawande and even Bill Bryson, who while more commonly perceived as a travel...

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