One of the unique feats of art is to be able to turn a forbidden or disgusting subject into one that is meaningful - or at least palatable. Now a book has appeared that treats a truly foul subject: feces. And through the miracle of the author's first-rate sense of humor, the work is both interesting an uproarious.
End Product, by Dan Sabbath and Mandel Hall (pseudonyms for two university professors - Mandel Hall is the name of an auditorium at the University of Chicago), is an overview of excrement. It discusses the history of it, beginning with how "the first defecation in recorded history is a tale of terror" in which an Assyrian emperor in 701 B.C. so terrified his opponents that they "let their dung go into their chariots." The book tells us that feces have practical uses: archaeologists examine its fossilized form to date sites; agriculturalists consider it to be great fertilizer. In addition, the authors have clearly done their homework and give us the fecal thoughts of such figures as Balzac, Luther, Jung, Gandhi, Freud, Valtaire, Locke, Swift, Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. All these are combined in End Product with dozens of amusing anecdotes designed to make people feel more comfortable with their feces.
(One curiosity is a preface by Abby Rockefeller. In it she argues that "the flush toilet must be abolished as a threat to our entire civilization" and that a composting toilet [which she manufactures] is necessary. While it would not be this reviewer's choice of a cause celebre, she makes an interesting point.)
But the best part of the book is its tone. There isn't an earnest sentence in it. Frequently, the authors break the excremental news to us by posing a "profound" question. For example, there is a chapter called "Odious Comparisons" which asks: "If you were up to your chin in s-t and someone threw a bucket of puke at you, would you duck?" And in a chapter called "A Dirty Shame," they make us think about our notions of an afterlife: "Do you want to eat food when you get to heaven? Do you want to be able to s-t there?"
If a reader can keep an open mind toward the subject, he will be rewarded with some good guffaws. End Product may even be - as the authors say - "the last book you will ever read in the bathroom." (Urizen, $10)