Ralph Lewin,
Merde: Excursions in
Scientific, Cultural and
Socio-Historical Coprology

(Random House, 1999)

The title of this book, a French curse word widely known and used outside of its country of origin, also refers to a subject that affects every living creature on this planet. The author, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, foregoes numerous opportunities for puns and only once in a while flashes a dry wit. Though scatology may amuse, Ralph Lewin is not interested in that; rather, his book is a serious treatment of coprology, the science of solid waste products -- of human beings, of course, but also that of numerous creatures of the orders of mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, birds and even microscopic creatures. History, biology, culture and animal behaviour are thus the real subjects of Merde.

Lewin, writing in the most ingratiating, sophisticated and thoroughly scientific way, discusses fecal matters in relation to myths and legends; physical features; environmental pollution; health and disease; use for construction, as fertilizers, as fuel -- even nutritional values! The book is also replete with personal adventures and observations, as well as anecdotes and examples. As far as this last, just to convey an idea of the contents: "The consumer's union staff members assigned the task of testing toilets, handily concocted a synthetic material out of sawdust, flour, shortening, and just enough hollow plastic beads to confer a slight degree of buoyancy, but the usual formula involves a crucial ratio of water to fiber -- no laughing matter to, say, an army."

For the first time, the highly scattered literature on this subject has been perused, compiled and given a personal touch, as it were (with extensive bibliography provided). The resulting book is a highly unusual, fascinating and bizarrely entertaining reading experience packed with weird data and information the reader may always have wondered about -- but didn't quite know how to broach the subject. This treasure trove of odd facts is an ideal ice-breaker, just begging to be shared, and while it may not be suitable for every personal library, it is the perfect item to keep in another room in the house where it is guaranteed to arouse interest -- maybe even astound!

[ by Amy Harlib ]



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