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The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters

really liked it 4.00  ·  Rating details ·  2,145 ratings  ·  377 reviews
An utterly original exploration of the world of human waste that will surprise, outrage--and entertain

Produced behind closed doors, disposed of discreetly, and hidden by euphemism, bodily waste is something common to all and as natural as breathing, yet we prefer not to talk about it. But we should--even those of us who take care of our business in pristine, sanitary
Hardcover, 238 pages
Published October 14th 2008 by Metropolitan Books
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Will Byrnes
Mar 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
Or as we call it, The Poo Book.

If you are expecting a Mary Roach approach, forget it. While there are more than a couple of yucks in Georges book, they provide spice and not substance. This is a sober examination of a crucial public health matter. George offers plenty of supportive stats, without letting them get in the way of telling her story. How do societies in diverse cultures cope with human waste? George looks at methodologies and social standards in the USA, Japan, India, China and
Richard Derus
Dec 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
Rating: 4.75* of five

This review has been revised and can now be found at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud.

It really and truly IS The Porcelain God. Worship it, because it's the reason you're not dead yet.
Dec 30, 2008 rated it really liked it
If you glance over my previously listed books, you'll have noted that I'm on a "end of civilization as we know it" reading jag, and this book fits right into the series. In fact, in many ways it's the best of the lot. Excreting is something we all do and almost none of us like to think about it, let alone talk about it, let alone read a whole book on the subject. But, because of this, our ignorance is immense. Who would have guessed, for example, that the world divides between those who clean ...more
Aug 19, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2009
To be uninterested in the public toilet is to be uninterested in life.

OK, folks. 2009 is over, and the results are in. There were plenty of honorable mentions in the nonfiction category for the year - Henry Alford's "How to Live", Alain de Boton's "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work", and the Brafman brothers' excellent "Sway".

While these three books were particularly engaging and well-executed, they are nonetheless eclipsed by the sheer unadulterated genius of Rose George's inspired
Mar 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Yes, I am a science geek. This is terrific read. When I was a kid, I would read "historical" books, like Little House on the Prairie, and I would be thinking, hmm, where did they go to the bathroom? What did they use for toilet paper? Dad said they used leaves and I said no way! How could that work?

I guess I was destined to become interested in microbiology and tolerant and compassionate enough to work with people's poo samples and try to figure out what was making them ill.

I will never drive by
Jan 15, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Kate!
Shelves: non-fiction, 3-star, 2016
My cousin A. (who is a kind and generous person, a sterling example of the apple falling far, far away from the family tree) once complimented me on my willingness to address problems. Well, I said, what gets done when we ignore things?

This book makes me feel like I've spent my life willfully blind. HOW IS IT THAT I'VE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT POO?

Sad-faced celebrities talk about helping people obtain access to water and helping girls get menstrual supplies so they can go to school -- what they mean
Julie Christine
Dec 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Julie Christine by: NY Times
With passion, humor and integrity, Rose George makes a rock-solid case for sanitation as the world's most critical development issue. Without easy access to safe and effective sanitation, communities cannot provide clean drinking water or food free from contamination or lower the risk of life-threatening diseases. Without access to sanitation, women are chained to the Sisyphian drudgery of seeking out and carrying water, girls are too shamed to attend school once they begin menstruating, ...more
Feb 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Sewage. Hot, right? But as the title implies, it needs to become a hot topic, because the way we deal with sewage impacts all of us, and will continue to do so as the population grows.

Toilet culture, as the author says, is disintegrating and were all just oblivious. For example, 47% of public restrooms in London have closed in the past decade. But where is the public outcry as we lose our stalls? Where are the academic articles analyzing and decrying this travesty? Its just not sexy enough! We
Jamie Collins
A very interesting book.

"2.6 billion people don't have sanitation. I don't mean that they have no toilet in their house and must use a public one with queues and fees. Or that they have an outhouse, or a rickety shack that empties into a filthy drain or pigsty. All that counts as sanitation, though not a safe variety. The people who have those are the fortunate ones. Four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket or box. Nothing. Instead, they defecate by train tracks and in
Oct 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
I just thought of a weird fact about myself. When I was little, instead of using the word poop we called it rocks, as in Mommy, I need to make rocks. When I grew up I studied what in college? Geology.

I think this book should have been called, The History of Toilets and Sewers Around the World or Poop: How To Get Rid of a Whole Lot of It. It really wasnt so much about human waste itself, but how it makes people sick and what the world does with it. FYI: India creates 200,000 TONS of human waste
Apr 18, 2009 rated it liked it
This book's biggest shortcoming is the lack of any real narrative or central thesis beyond the fact that we don't pay as much attention to human sanitation as we should. George jumps around between disconnected topics like pit latrines in Tanzanian slums and the history of luxury toilet technology without even trying to justify it. And, as you might expect, the book gets a little slow as it goes on - one can only take so much sewer talk. Still, this is the sort of book that makes you look ...more
Mar 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
After a recent trip to India, where the lack of available sanitation is a huge problem, this book was of interest. I was intrigued to read that getting people who are "open defecators" to accept the concept of using latrines is actually very challenging. The strategies that are being successful are an interesting study in psychology.
Sep 28, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: microhistory, science
One of the most unusual topics for a book and that I would never have expected to pique my interest. In fact, I found the topic fascinating and it covered a topic that concerns us all. It is written with humor and intelligence, thoroughly researched, and well-written. The author gives us a lot of great detail and illustrates her findings in a provocative and thoughtful way. It is not a straight chronology like you might expect from other evolutionary social histories. Her examples are from ...more
Nov 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in public policy
Recommended to John by: heard interview of the author on radio
Did you know that out of 6 billion humans, 2.6 billion have no bathroom, toilet, latrine or other place to tidily and privately relieve themselves? They use a vacant lot, walk a way down a railroad track, or "go" in a plastic bag that they then toss on a roof or over a fence.
"The Big Necessity" is full of such interesting facts.
But more than that, the book is an important overview of the current state of sanitation in the world, be it the robotic toilets of Japan or the tossed plastic bags of
Feb 22, 2018 rated it liked it
As someone who's visited both Newtown Creek and the Greenpoint Water Treatment Plant for fun, there was not a ton of new shit here. It did answer some crap I'd been wondering about, like why houses in London have separated drainage pipes, and why I shouldn't eat raw fruits or vegetables in China. But if you ask me, there's a bit of waste material that could have been flushed down the toilet instead.
This is an informative look at human waste management (or lack thereof) globally. George covers many topics including current sanitation realities in various parts the world, the effects on health of inadequate waste management, the need for a coordinated effort to address lack of adequate waste disposal/treatment, differing cultural practices, and issues regarding water-based sanitation. Also covered are technological advances such as toilet innovation (Japan has it figured out!) and biogas ...more
Jan 30, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4 Stars

Although I had hoped for more information on what the wealthier countries were doing about sanitation the amount of information given about world wide issues of sanitation is staggering. As an overview this book is a good start in understanding the problems and why physiological issues need to be overcome as well as practical, physical applications.
Edmund Davis-Quinn
Apr 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: library
Very important book about a topic we are often afraid to talk about. Shit matters. And if it's not dealt with cleanly it can be extremely dangerous. The chapter that resonated most with me is "Open Defecation-Free India". We still live in a world where 3 billion people defecate outside, including 585 million in India spoke. It fouls water and food supplies and can make people very sick. An extremely important book.
Dec 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
One of those books that makes me realize yet again what incredible privilege I live in and take for granted. In this case, it's sanitationthe ability to use a clean toilet every day and flush my waste away without a second thought. This is a luxury that, as Rose George points out, 2.6 billion people do not enjoy. They enjoy nothing remotely like it:
I don't mean that they have no toilet in their house and must use a public one with queues and fees. Or that they have an outhouse, or a rickety
Feb 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
This review is originally posted on my blog, at Links and images from the original post are omitted in this review.

One of the first things I noticed when I started traveling was international differences in public restrooms. In New York City I was met with the conundrum of a city that has everything except restrooms. In China I saw squat toilets for the first time and refused to use them. Working in a hospital with filthy restrooms has given me a strong
Feb 03, 2009 rated it liked it
The book starts as a travelogue on different sewer systems and then moves toward more of a Polzin type book on the importances of sanitation systems. As an engineering who watches too much Modern Marvels, but of this was not interesting. It never went too detailed, which is more my interest. So, what are the different options for human waste sanitation? Open defecation and the helicopter toilet (shit in a bag and throw into the street). This is a big problem. A lot of poor people actually prefer ...more
Munthir Mahir
Sep 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
Rose George has a penchant for choosing absurdly large topics. In the process she misses a great deal of aspects pertaining to the subject, but what she does touch on she serves beautifully. The big necessity is about the behind the doors human waste. The one which humans never fail to deliver incessantly day in and day out. But where does it go? Suffice to say neither developed countries nor underdeveloped countries are sure where and into what it goes or should go. As George deftly explains ...more
Patricia Weenolsen
Dec 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing

Youve never taken a sewer tour of London or New York City, have you? Or stopped to chat with anyone in the Hindu caste of the pristine broken people as they empty Indias latrines and clean up feces despite Mahatma Gandhis attempts to get everyone to haul their own? Or contemplated a nice dinner salad as you watched Chinese excrement being sprayed on fields of cabbages? Or marched in a protest advocating womens urinals without doors, of course privacy being all in your mind?
If you havent
Jennifer Mangler
Jul 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, favorites
When I tell people that I read this book and loved it they cringe or think I'm strange. And that is why EVERYONE needs to read this book. We don't like to talk about poop and we don't like to think about poop. We are, in other words, a fecalphobic culture, and that has profound implications for millions of people around the world. Good sanitation is absolutely vital and its impact is often overlooked. Sanitation doesn't get brought up in most history books but it has played an absolutely vital ...more
Xing Chen
May 20, 2010 rated it really liked it
Rivetingly researched. Takes us from slums of Mumbai to toilet-manufacturing plants in Japan, and reveals that despite apparently huge cultural and economic differences, people readily adapt in order to do what our body dictates using the facilities available- ejection of waste is a fundamental necessity, regardless of how many smoke screens, walls, and doors we errect (though I'm awed over by the concept of played-back flushing sounds).
Having visited the Chinese countryside and used public
Susan Ritz
Jul 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Who knew that a book about toilets and sewage could actually be fun and fascinating? Rose George is a master of the creative nonfiction genre, using her wit and keen powers of observation to delve into a subject no one really wants to talk about. I had no idea that over 2 billion people have no sanitation, not even a hole in the ground to pee in. I hadn't really thought about the direct connection between dirty drinking water and lack of sewage removal, but George lets us know the human toll ...more
B. Rule
This is a book on a very interesting and important subject, and it's clear that the author did a lot of traveling for research to write it. It's almost amusing to see where she'll pop up next in search of her subject. I found the information on sanitation in slums and in much of the developing world to be fascinating, terrible, and tragic. Leavened throughout were somewhat incongruously light chapters on those zany Japanese, always good for a laugh (or so the author seems to think), and a few ...more
Jul 18, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, own
This was a pretty interesting read that brings to attention something that everyone who lives in a 1st world country doesn't really think about. I think most of us take sanitation and waste removal for granted. When was the last time that you ever thought about where your poop goes after flushing?

I thought it was particularly fascinating when this book addressed the sanitation situations in other countries such as India. I had no idea about the difficulties that they face as a nation about
Jul 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
MESMERIZING. Fun, dynamic read; I totally learned a bunch of stuff here. That Japan makes the most advanced, remarkable toilets in the world. (p. 41). The incredible toilet system known as Washlet by the TOTO company.

HILARIOUS: Top-of-the-line Neorest takes two days to learn its owners habits, and adjusts its heating and water use accordingly, checks the sugar in your urine, puts the lid down . . . It can probably sense that Im writing about it. (p. 47).

How do you create (find the exact angle of
Kate Schindler
Sep 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I. Loved. This. Book. I know it doesn't sound super awesome to most people, but I've been interested in sanitation infrastructure since I was doing research on diarrheal diseases at PSI the summer after graduation. More children die each year from diarrhea than from AIDS, from malaria, or from tuberculosis. When people are sick all the time, they're a lot less productive and they have to spend a lot of money on medicine. But my favorite thing about this book was that it emphasized that the ...more
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“This is why the Liberian waiter laughed at me. He thought that I thought a toilet was my right, when he knew it was a privilege.
"It must be, when 2.6 billion people don't have sanitation. I don't mean that they have no toilet in their house and must use a public one with queues and fees. Or that they have an outhouse, or a ricety shack that empties into a filthy drain or pigsty. All that counts as sanitation, though not a safe variety. The people who have those are the fortunate ones. Four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box. Nothing. Instead, they defecate by train tracks and in forests. They do it in plastic bags and fling them through the air in narrow slum alleyways. If they are women, they get up at 4 A.M. to be able to do their business under cover of darkness for reasons of modesty, risking rape and snakebites. Four in ten people live in situations where they are surrounded by human excrement because it is in the bushes outside the village or in their city yards, left by children outside the backdoor. It is tramped back in on their feet, carried on fingers onto clothes, food and drinking water.
"The disease toll of this is stunning. A gram of feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs...”
“If the cultural standing of excrement doesn't convince them, I say that the material itself is as rich as oil and probably more useful. It contains nitrogen and phosphates that can make plants grow and also suck the life from water because its nutrients absorb available oxygen. It can be both food and poison. It can contaminate and cultivate. Millions of people cook with gas made by fermenting it. I tell them that I don't like to call it "waste," when it can be turned into bricks, when it can make roads or jewelry, and when in a dried powdered form known as poudrette it was sniffed like snuff by the grandest ladies of the eighteenth-century French court. Medical men of not too long ago thought stool examination a vital diagnostic tool (London's Wellcome Library holds a 150-year0old engraving of a doctor examining a bedpan and a sarcastic maid asking him if he'd like a fork). They were also fond of prescribing it: excrement could be eaten, drunk, or liberally applied to the skin. Martin Luther was convinced: he reportedly ate a spoonful of his own excrement daily and wrote that he couldn't understand the generosity of a God who freely gave such important and useful remedies.” 2 likes
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