A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Daily Life – Reviewed

A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Daily LifeA Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Daily Life by Greg Jenner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Horrible Histories for adults. If you’re not familiar with that show, it’s a cartoon making history fun. The concept of the book is clever, it lays out the chronological history of everyday tasks that you’d do in a typical day. The book is a goldmine for facts. Some of the more notable ones include: Henry VIII employed someone to inhale his “majestic” farts, the French referred to their toilets as “The English place” (the chapter on the call of nature was especially good), in the Ming dynasty Pekingese puppies were breastfed by human wet nurses, the wearing of stripes was historically frowned upon due to biblical reasons and that’s why prisoners wore stripy clothes. The philosopher Philoxenos induced nerve damage in his fingers so that he could get first dibs on food, prepared excruciatingly hot at the expense of his guests. Sadly the later chapters were less packed of such entertaining facts and were rather dull. A lot of the historical titbits I’d heard already, from QI and some from the podcast (though I think Greg Jenner was a guest on an episode), so some of the material feels like a rehash.

What detracts from this work is that, Jenner likes to cram in pop culture references every couple of pages, that don’t fit. Think weird contemporary references or similes that he thinks will jazz up the history (reminds me of the way J K Rowling writes). The fact is, the text is entertaining enough already without needing to be tarted up. He also comes across as someone who thinks he’s a lot funnier than he actually is. In a book of historical truth, there are inaccuracies. He mentions the syphon valve, which prevents bad smells such as that from methane, “oozing back up from the bog pan”. Of course methane is odourless and doesn’t give shit its stink. He talks about how 19th century Britain outcompeted the Indian textile market by importing American cotton. This isn’t the whole story. The British deindustrialized India, forcing it to produce raw materials only for export to Britain, so they didn’t have much of a textile industry left to compete with. This does make me wonder what other inaccuracies are there in this book. Overall though, I do imagine most of it is correct. He boasts, that the book has been fact checked by his twitter followers, presumably harnessing the wisdom of crowds…

In a blow to racists, the book reveals that the proto Indians or Harappans invented the flush toilet and the modern meme regarding outdoor defecation is without merit and due to widespread poverty.

I take after my father, I smell of armpits – Louis XIII

Q: What’s the cleanest leaf in the forest?
A: Holly, because no one dares wipe his arse on it! – Medieval Joke

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Bacterial Misunderstanding

If you pay attention to the news, you will often hear pseudo-scientific misleading statements like:

“There’s more bacteria on your smartphone than on your toilet seat!”

replace smartphone with keyboard, mouse &c. Oh really? If toilet seats are so clean lets see you eat your dinner off of them then (Clearly, no sane person would do this for a number of reasons. I’d wager people would in fact eat off their smartphones instead. Why? There’s probably a psychological component to it). You know what’s got more bacteria in it than a smartphone? You. 10% of your body weight is made up of bacteria, bacterial cells out number human cells. Does this mean we’re all about to drop dead at any given moment? Evidently not, well not because of the everyday bacteria present in our bodies anyway.

The number of bacteria is not important, it’s the type. The pathogens that hang around the bog seats are a lot more dangerous than the ones on our smartphones and other household objects. That’s why you use bleach on the toilets and maybe a wet wipe for your phones. There’s good bacteria and bad bacteria.