Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Dirt on Clean, Katherine Ashenburg

Bill Bryson cited this book in At Home, in the chapter on bathrooms.  The author's name seemed familiar, and then I remembered she is the author of The Mourner's Dance, subtitled "What We Do When People Die."  It's a book written from personal experience: less than a month after becoming engaged, her daughter's fiancé was killed in a car accident.  In her own grief and loss, watching her daughter navigate the funeral and find mourning rituals made Ashenburg wonder about grief rituals in times past, and how modern society grieves.  I found it very moving, not in the least morbid, and full of interesting information.  It was my introduction to Japanese burial practices, so I was prepared when I visited the National Museum of Funeral History here in Houston ( - a must-see for visitors).

This book is much lighter (Bryson calls it "sparkling," no pun intended I'm sure).  Subtitled "An Unsanitized History," it looks at ideals and practices of cleanliness in Western Europe and America, moving chronologically.  She starts naturally with the Greeks and Romans.  I was familiar with the Roman baths, from two visits to Bath in England and Rome itself, as well as museums and historical novels.

I was less familiar with the rest of the story, though this book helped me put together pieces of information that I knew but wouldn't have connected. With the decline of Rome and of the baths, from many points of view, including that of cleanliness, things got pretty bleak.  Early Christians equating dirt with holiness; people's fear of open pores admitting diseases and germs; the mind-boggling idea that wearing clean linen cleaned the skin; the association of bath houses with prostitution - all contributing to filth and disease and bugs.  Though I've always loved the idea of time travel, I've now decided I'm not going unless I can get my nose cauterized like Kivrin in Connie Willis' Doomsday Book.
This is an entertaining, informative read - not quite as overwhelming as Bryson's book - and with sidebars that are not to be missed.  In the last chapters it also asks some provocative questions, about how our ideas of cleanliness (especially in America) are driven by advertising and consumerism; and how environmental changes, including water shortages, will affect us.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!