The Challenge: Read a nonfiction book about science
Background: I don’t read much nonfiction. When I do, it’s usually more along the lines of books about food and wine, books about books, and maybe a smattering of popular history, so this challenge required I stretch myself a little bit.
The Book: I considered a few different options for this challenge before finally settling on the below. While I might not read nonfiction about science, that doesn’t mean a few titles don’t make it to my TBR: Joy, Guilt, Anger, Love: What Neuroscience Can–and Can’t–Tell Us About How We Feel by Giovanni Frazzetto; The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee; and A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I have good intentions sometimes! What’d I end up reading?
Title: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
Author: Mary Roach
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Genre: science, sexuality
Rating: 3/5 stars
Yep. I picked a book about doing it. Real intellectual- and mature-like over here.
This was my first book by Mary Roach, who takes a humorous, hand-on approach to the popular science genre with titles like Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. I was hoping for something akin to Sarah Vowell for science: smart, funny, incisive. Plus I wanted to learn a bunch of weird crap about sex that I could share at dinner parties (which on second thought, is probably just going to make people think I’m sort of pervert, but whatever, I make poor choices).
Roach delivers about half of what I wanted. She tackles a broad range of topics including the early days of sex research (much of which is HORRIFYING until we get to Masters & Johnson, which is merely occasionally appalling); erectile dysfunction (I could happily never read another first-hand account of ED surgery and die a happy woman); penile implants; the challenges of studying sexuality (between the human subjects boards and prudish funding sources, it’s shocking that we know as much as we do about sex); fertility (that chapter involves the stimulation of pigs, so… yeah, that happened); and the mysteries of the orgasm.
Roach is funny. Even if the humor here tends more towards dirty puns and bad dad jokes, I laughed out loud at least a dozen times. The book is about sex after all, it’s just begging for dick jokes, and Roach obliges.
She does a good job of condensing what must have been a ton of research down into a breezy, easy-to-read book that won’t be off-putting to the scientifically disciplined among us. I certainly walked away having learned a lot (much to the chagrin of friends who are already being exposed to a bunch of “did you know that…” from me).
But, in the end, I found myself wanting a bit more from the book. While Roach certainly goes far to “get” the story (including having sex with her husband in a lab while having a doctor take ultrasound images), she doesn’t fully succeed at telling the story of the science of human sexuality. The first two thirds of the book felt like “hey, here’s some creepy/weird/gross/strange stuff about sex! Isn’t it creepy/weird/gross/strange?!? Aren’t I clever for telling you about this creepy/weird/gross/strange stuff?” During the last third when she started getting to some of the (to me) interesting stuff, it often felt like it was more about her than the science. One particular scene ends up being more about how she’s a klutz than about the science going on in the other room.
Human sexuality is so complex and mysterious, and I wanted her to go deeper (there is no way to do this without puns, I’m sorry!), to spend more time with the science and less with the anecdotes about people inserting objects into their orifices, to offer a little more incisive commentary on the topic than “sex is weird” and “science about sex is hard.”
It was still certainly worth the read, but I suspect if I start incorporating more science nonfiction into my reading life, it will be a bit lighter on the pop and heavier on the science.