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Read Orrin's interview with W. Hodding Carter.




If I could not be a prince, I would be a plumber.
    Edward, Prince of Wales


Suffice it to say that a book about plumbing doesn't naturally float to the top of your pile. But W. Hodding Carter has written several very amusing books and essays of almost-Plimptonesque participatory journalism, or whatever you'd want to call the genre, recounting trips he took to retrace the routes of the Lewis and Clark expedition, of Leiff Eriksson's seafaring Vikings, and of Thoreau through the Maine woods.. So when he's the one pitching the epic tale of plumbing, the reader familiar with his work has ample reason to expect more than just dry history. In Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization he does not disappoint.

Plumbing is, for nearly all of us, a subject that we're just as happy to have out of sight and out of mind. But Mr. Carter wants to, almost literally, rub our noses in it. To this task he brings two very necessary ingredients: first, a mania for sewage and the science of its removal from human proximity; and, second, great good humor, including the willingness to laugh at himself. The former is on display when he tries recording a friend's second-by-second reaction to using a futuristic Japanese toilet--the Jasmin, from Toto; when he determines first to repair the plumbing in his own house, heading into the task with little clue what he's doing, and later to construct pipes from lead as the Romans would have; when he calls a professor at home just to compliment him on a book her wrote about Roman plumbing; when he prostrates himself across the ancient pipes in the city of Bath as a religious supplicant might lie down before a crucifix; and when he goes sewage spelunking through the sewer system under the Thames. Such enthusiasm, however odd, can't help but be infectious. Meanwhile, because he's always (almost always?) able to keep his own mania in perspective and to joke about it, we're reassured that it's likely a harmless sort of lunacy and that it is okay for us to laugh both with and at him.

I do have one quarrel with the book and it regards terminology, or, more precisely, scatological terminology Obviously when you're writing about plumbing and sewage at some length you're going to have to speak frequently of the materials that compose said sewage. Now, Mr. Carter is at some pains to convince us that we ought to be more open about our body functions and their byproducts and argues at some length that the only reason we aren't is because of repressive Christianity. Of course, this is at odds with the credit he wants to give plumbing for improving our sanitary conditions precisely by distancing us from our own waste. One might think that the emotional/social distancing and the physical/technological were inextricably bound up together and reinforced one another nicely, no? But, even setting that aside, the two terms he uses most frequently to refer to that waste are "poop" and "s**t." The former really ought only be used in speaking with young children and can't help but sound juvenile. The latter, while not out of place in casual conversation when used as an ejaculation, always sounds crass in polite conversation and when you find it on the printed page suggests some degree of laziness or disregard for the reader. After all, one does not write with the emotion and lack of control with which one speaks to friends. Prose is crafted and edited in more dispassionate circumstances and simple good manners have ample time to kick in. Personally, I'd have used the word "scat" instead. It seems particularly well-suited both because it is so close to the profanity and because scatology refers both to the actual study of excrement and to obscenity. Be that as it may, Mr. Carter chose differently, and other readers will no doubt react differently. I just thought both usages awkward. Quibbles aside, the book is very funny and often fascinating. Mr. Carter is certainly correct about the central role plumbing has played in improving public health in the West, though, as his visit to India shows, it has a long way to go in the less developed world. And it is remarkable how little we generally know about the very pipes that wend their way through our walls and floors, literally surrounding us in a web. We needn't all start leaving the bathroom door open, as Mr. Carter suggests, but we might well spare some time to think about a subject that we quite consciously block from our minds most of the time. This book serves as a great guide to that netherworld of plumbing.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

W. Carter Links:

    -AUTHOR: W. Hodding Carter (Simon & Schuster)
    -ESSAY: Compete in the Olympics (W. Hodding Carter, January 2006, Outside Magazine)
    -ESSAY: A Wetland Dying of Thirst (W. Hodding Carter, July 15, 2004, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Without a Paddle: Journey with us through the watery heart of the largest subtropical wetlands in America: the Everglades. Why? Because it's there—or used to be (W. Hodding Carter, August 2003, Outside Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Three Tots in a Tub (W. Hodding Carter, Outside)
    -ESSAY: My Son the Manatee: Is it ever too late to become the caring parent you thought you could be? To find out, one man went in search of his adopted manatee—only to discover the many injustices that humankind has heaped upon these hapless marine mammals. And when Junior is fat, slow, and endangered, family values are nothing more than an easy way to break your heart (W. Hodding Carter, May 2000, Outside)
    -ESSAY: Roadside Attractions: When you see mermaids cavorting just off U.S. 19 in central Florida, you may be tempted to join them (W. Hodding Carter, November 2000, Smithsonian)
    -ESSAY: Tell Us Now: the Saga of the Self-Styled Viking, of His Epic Voyage Over the Frozen Sea, of His Trusty Vessel, His Bravery, His Valor, His Battles Won and Maidens Wooed, His Glorious and Stirring Triumph. OK, Maybe Not. (W. Hodding Carter, July 1998, Outside)
    -ARCHIVES: "w. hodding carter" (Find Articles)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: W. Hodding Carter: "Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization" (Diane Rehm, 5/23/06, NPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: W. Hodding Carter, author of the book "Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization" (Marco Werman, 6/09/06, The World)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: A Viking Voyage: An Interview with W. Hodding Carter (Savvy Traveler, 11/03/00, NPR)
    -PROFILE: Like the Vikings, Except for that Nasty Pillaging: An adventuresome author tries to recreate a dicey 1,000-year-old voyage (Paul Scott, August 1997, Outside)
    -ARTICLE: Ship to recreate 1,000-year-old voyage to America (Jerry Harkavy, 3/08/97, Associated Press)
    -ARTICLE: Viking Voyage 1000 - The Voyage of The Snorri (Viking Voyage 1000, August 15, 1997)
    -ARTICLE: A Bitter-Sweet Story (Ben and Tony)
    -ARTICLE: Modern Day Vikings Complete 1,800 Mile Voyage: Rediscover The New World (BUSINESS WIRE FEATURES, Sept. 22, 1998)
    -ESSAY: It's Not a Job, It's an Adventure! : Meet a new kind of Web geek. Randy Lagman, of Lands' End, is a virtual adventurer who has traded servers for snowshoes and hard drives for handguns. "The folks we work with are a different breed." (Mark Halper, January 1999, FastCompany)
    -ESSAY: How Christianity locked the bathroom door (DAVID CRUMM, 6/10/06, Detroit FREE PRESS)
    -REVIEW: of Flushed (Norman Ritter, Blethen Maine Newspapers)
    -REVIEW: of Westward Whoa!: In the Wake of Lewis and Clark by W. Hodding Carter (Kate Wilson, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Westward Whoa! (Kenai Peninsula College)
    -REVIEW: of Stolen Water: Saving the Everglades From Its Friends, Foes, and Florida By W. Hodding Carter (Jessica Ebert, Audubon)
    -REVIEW: of Stolen Water (Alan Prince, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of A Viking Voyage: In Which an Unlikely Crew of Adventurers Attempts an Epic Journey to the New World by W. Hodding Carter (Donna Scanlon, Rambles)
    -REVIEW: of Viking Voyage (Lucy Gilmore, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Viking Voyage (ANDY SPLETZER, The Stranger)

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