Really Good Shit: A Reading List

Edited and cropped image by Quinn Dombrowski (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As the Japanese children’s book author Tarō Gomi once wrote: everyone poops. But we don’t talk about this openly or often enough. In fact, talking and reading about poop might make you want to hold your nose — but it’ll also open your eyes. Here are eight pieces about shit, from a DIY mixture a woman used to treat her life-threatening infection, to prehistoric poo that brings us one step closer to understanding the origins of life after the dinosaur age.

“The Magic Poop Potion” (Lina Zeldovich, Narratively)

Suffering from a recurring intestinal infection called C. diff, Catherine Duff decided to take matters into her own hands. Using healthy stool from her husband, they concocted an unconventional cocktail — using a plastic enema, blender, and a cheese cloth — which he then transferred into her. This procedure, known as fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), saved her life. Duff advocated for FMT as a viable treatment when the FDA considered regulating it as an “investigational new drug,” and founded the Fecal Transplant Foundation to educate the public and to connect patients, doctors, and stool donors.

“(Re)Becoming Human” (Jeff Leach, Human Food Project, September 2014)

“As the sun set over Lake Eyasi in Tanzania, nearly thirty minutes had passed since I had inserted a turkey baster into my bum and injected the feces of a Hadza man — a member of one of the last remaining hunter-gatherers tribes in the world — into the nether regions of my distal colon.” Given their foraging way of life, the Hadza have a unique diversity of bacteria. Leach receives a fecal microbiota transplant from a Hadza man to see what more he can learn about the Western diet — and the modern human’s lack of microbial diversity — and what our ancestral microbes might have looked like.

“Why Is America Turning to Shit?” (Yasmin Nair, The Awl, October 2013)

“And we have, by and large, been allowed to forget about shit.” Have Americans separated themselves too much from their own waste? Nair discusses the complicated and contradictory relationship between the U.S. and its own shit, and the movement of late to keep our poop closer, with the help of composting toilets and the diaper-free movement. But while some Americans are embracing their poop, most people around the world — living in unsanitary conditions — are simply trying to escape it.

“You Don’t Know Shit: An Interview with Joe Jenkins” (Leslee Goodman, The Moon Magazine, January 2015)

Joe Jenkins, the author of the definitive guide to composting human manure, The Humanure Handbook, talks about the cyclical process of recycling human excrement for agricultural purposes: a process in which organisms digest and convert it into humus, which is then returned to the soil. “We live in a culture where bodily excretions are assumed to be without value,” he says. While he doesn’t think the majority of Americans will convert from flush to composting toilets, he’s hopeful that other countries will, and talks about composting setups he’s established in Haiti, Mongolia, and Mozambique as sustainable models for future systems.

“A Brief History of Class and Waste in India” (Rose George, The Big Necessity, Metropolitan Books, 2008)

“But all over India one thing is common: beneath the castes are the outcastes, the polluted and the untouchable. They are untouchable because they handle human shit.” In a chapter from The Big Necessity, George explores the world of Dalits: the manual scavengers among the caste system of modern India who clean sewers, unclog blockages, and empty latrines.

“Reading the Book of Life in Prehistoric Dung” (Eliza Strickland, Nautilus, November 2013)

Can the key to understanding the beginnings of life after the dinosaur age be found in a hardened piece of poo? Paleoscatologist Karen Chin, who specializes in coprolites (or fossilized feces), searches for evidence about our ancient ecosystems, how dinosaurs may have fed and moved, and the creatures that survived near-extinction to help support a new landscape for life.

“From the Bowels of a Beast” (Aurora Almendral, Narratively, June 2013)

“There is no practical reason to drink civet coffee. The caffeine won’t give you special powers of productivity. It won’t clear your digestive tract. It’s a plain and simple luxury.” The world’s most expensive coffee is made from beans that are eaten and pooped out by civets. The animal’s digestive system ferments the bean — a process that gives civet coffee its unique aroma and smooth flavor. With the help of Igorot civet shit harvesters, Almendral seeks out this small animal, prized for its poop, in the mountains of the Philippines.

“The Oral History of the Poop Emoji (Or, How Google Brought Poop to America” (Lauren Schwartzberg, Fast Company, November 2014)

“Most importantly, it always elicits a smile from the reader and the writer, which is ultimately the purest purpose of emoji: to add emotional expressiveness to written communication.” Schwartzberg compiles an oral history on the origin and evolution of the beloved 💩 emoji, created in Japan and brought to the U.S. by a team at Google.