An investigation of shit yields gold.

By Peter Kurth

Published May 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

For a man who's spent the last several years poking around in shit, Ralph A. Lewin seems remarkably levelheaded and fastidious. Or maybe it's the other way around: A tidy mind and nerves of steel might be the first requirements for a comparative analysis of poop, human, animal and fossil. Dr. Lewin is a professor of marine biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego, and his "Merde" is being promoted as a "scientific excursion into the cultural and social and anthropological and mythological and biological aspects of what we might as well call coprology." As a term to describe the methodical study of feces, Lewin prefers "coprology" to "scatology" -- not for scientific reasons but because "it sounds more respectable." He is nothing if not mindful of the refined sensibilities of Homo sapiens.

"This work is presented as a more or less scientific aggiornamento," Lewin writes in his introduction. "I've tried to stick fairly closely to the broad subject of fecal matter. (Readers seeking comparable reviews on urine must look elsewhere.)" The book is divided into 19 chapters, each treating a different aspect of the daily dump: "Terminology and Cultural Attitudes," "Physical Features: Shapes and Sizes," "Smells and Other Chemical Components, Including Gases" "Human Toilets and Chamber Pots," "Sewage," "Public Nuisances," "Myths, Legends, and Holy Ordures," etc. Everything from diarrhea and constipation to enemas and refection -- the eating of feces -- finds a niche in Lewin's astonishing compendium. Nor is human defecation his only concern. A large portion of "Merde" is given over to anecdotes and ephemera from the lower orders: dung beetles, alligators, lemurs , bats, black-footed salamanders, chickens, cows, caterpillars and African wood storks, to name only a few.

"Unlike the relatively bulky feces of earthworms, those of snails are much more compact," Lewin notes cheerfully. And later: "Under water, hippos and manatees are often followed by schools of hungry fish, waiting to garner what, for want of a better word, we might call handouts." But it's the human angle that will fascinate most readers -- manatees don't buy books. Can any of us honestly say we have not wondered what our ancestors wiped their butts with in the absence of toilet paper? (Answer: sticks, stones, leaves, hay, wool, lace, mud, corncobs and -- in the last days before the mass production of toilet tissue -- pages from the Bible and the Sears-Roebuck catalog.)

Quite apart from its subject matter, this is a perfect book for the john. Shitting doesn't lend itself to any narrative pattern, and "Merde" is best read in short or long installments, depending on the state of your colon. At times, Lewin strives too hard for puns and clever remarks: "We are told that in a single year the French king Louis XV was subjected to more than two hundred purges and a comparable number of enemas. (Evidently not all of his time was spent on the throne.)" But you won't find a more elegant or a wittier treatise on shit in any bookstore this season.

Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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