Andrew Thompson,
What Did We Use Before Toilet Paper?
(John Blake, 2006; Ulysses, 2010)

The change of title makes me wonder about the American mindset, or at least the perception thereof among publishing executives.

When this book was published in Britain in 2006, its title was Why Do Kamikaze Pilots Wear Helmets? It's a pretty good title, a thought-provoking question that is a little amusing to ponder (although I'd have used a "did" instead of "do" since there don't seem to be a lot of kamikaze pilots flying around today).

When the book was repackaged for an American audience in 2010, the publisher opted instead for a potty question as the new title. The question itself is not nearly so interesting, and it makes the book sound sillier than it is. Does someone really think the word "toilet" is likely to make the book fly off the shelves?

Actually, I'd have gone with a more generic title, since the book is neither about Japanese suicide pilots nor bathroom mores. Rather, the book is a fascinating collection of common questions and not-so-common answers, many of which will surprise you.

Questions include:

• Why do women talk more than men do, but can't read maps as well as men?
• Was the 1969 Moon landing a fake? (The surprising thing here is, Thompson doesn't seem sure of his answer.)
• Why do women and not men take birth control pills?
• Can babies hear voices while inside the womb?
• Why is bellybutton lint generally blue?
• Why do men have nipples?
• Does penis size vary depending on race?

Now, some of Thompson's answers might have to be taken with a grain of salt. He cites no sources in the book, and many of his responses rely more on educated guesses than actual facts. Still, the book makes for an interesting read, whether you start on page one and read through to the end or you leave it by the toilet and read a few chapters during your idle moments. (See what I did there? I used the word "toilet." Americans, go wild!) There are, by the way, 200 chapters, each addressing a different question and each an average of one to two pages long. The answers are interesting, straightforward and concise.

It's a fun book to read, a pleasant and possibly educational way to pass the time.

book review by
Tom Knapp

6 November 2010

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