696: Flushed by W. Hodding Carter
696.109: Carter, W. Hodding. Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization. New York: Atria, 2007. 238 pp. ISBN 978-0-7434-7409-2.
Try to imagine the universe of books written about utilities (or just plumbing). It’s a pretty small universe. Most of these works are study manuals for HVAC trainees and guides for DIY home pipe-fitters. But, the Dewey in its infinite wisdom gives utilities its own section—696. Appropriately, it’s in the 600s (applied science, otherwise known as technology), then the 690s (Buildings). After reading this book, however, perhaps utilities deserve a little more recognition.
After spending a week trying to fix the plumbing in his crawl-space basement, W. Hodding Carter (known as “Hodding” to his friends, apparently) gets hypnotized by the beauty of plumbing. So, he embarks on a quest to find out all there is to know about plumbing.
He traces the history of plumbing all the way back to fifth millennium BCE China. Plumbing was lost for a bit after this, but shows up again in the Harappan civilization of the Indus River Valley. Once they created an ingenious public waterworks program, it never lost its necessity. The Greeks and the Romans continued the use of long-range water transportation and sewer systems. After them, water utilities and sewage systems were used to a varying degree in every major Western civilization until today.
Carter also chronicles the development of modern water treatment, water usage, and the creation of the toilet all in this slim book. Along the way, he also visits many sites of plumbing interest—he goes to Bath, England to see a real Roman water pipe, and even goes on a British sewer tour under the city of London. He tries to make his own lead pipe (mostly successfully) and installs a state-of-the-art home toilet (the Toto Washlet S300, also known as “the Jasmin”). He even invites the neighbors over to try it out (they are less than excited about this part). He calls up a Canadian professor to talk about a book on Roman plumbing that he wrote. He tags along with a group of journeyman plumbers to learn the trade for a few days (and gets quite a few stories out of it).
Hodding is relentless in his quest to understand the state of modern plumbing. This aplomb (pun intended) leads him to India to learn about the plight of the untouchables, and how Sulabh International is trying to free them their drudgery by making self-sustaining toilet systems available to all of India. These systems even rival Western toilets in their almost complete sustainability.
Carter’s tone is congenial and self-deprecating without getting pitiable. His curiosity and candor about plumbing and waste treatment are in much the same vein as Mike Rowe’s (of Dirty Jobs fame). All in all, he seems a little more excited about plumbing than any normal person should be, almost like a child with a new-found interest. But, then again, if he was normal, we wouldn’t have this delightful book.
My only criticism of the book is that there were no illustrations of any of the plumbing mechanisms he described. Nor were there any photographs of historical landmarks. These would have gone a long way toward making this book that much more enjoyable. Nevertheless, it was entertaining just the same. The typography is clear and the pacing made it seem as though he were giving a fun lecture. If you have a free afternoon, you could knock this one out.