Book Review: The Secret Life of Germs

They are on your hands. They are in your food. They are underneath the carpet. They are in your gut. They are in your butt. They colonize your teeth. They prowl the house while you sleep. They crawl on your skin at this very moment. Chances are, they will kill you. If they won’t, they will eat your decomposing body. They are what decomposes your body.
There is no escape. There is no hope. There is only death.
Enter at your own peril, for here lies only doom and woe: presenting “The Secret Life of Germs”, by Philip M. Tierno Jr!


Surprisingly, this is not a horror-thriller book – it’s popular science. In general, it describes different types of germs – an inclusive name for fungi, bacteria, viruses and any other microbial badasses which have you on the top of their kill list – how you may interact with them in everyday life, and how you can prevent them from eating you alive (seriously, I’m not making this up. Go ahead and count how many times the phrase “flesh-eating” appears in the text).
After reading this book, you will know when to wash your hands, and which types of germ invasion you are preventing when doing so. You will also learn guidelines for preparing food, bathroom layout, handling pets, taking hikes, and basically anything else that relates to personal cleanliness. In short: it teaches you elementary hygiene, something which of course everyone should know, but at a much deeper level than you are used to. Which is nice.
But it’s also fucking scary. If you take its content at immediate face value you will not be able to finish it, because you will be curled up into a little ball, whimpering in the corner of of a remote island while continually pouring bleach on yourself. This is because “the modern office is densely populated with objects that can harbor infectious germs”, “[dollar] bills are contaminated with germs of fecal, respiratory and skin origin”, “leaky vacuum cleaner kept resuspending Salmonella”, “the infant’s walker had a heavy growth of S. aureus”, and “The steering wheel was covered in beta hemolytic group A strep, which can cause strep throat or flesh-eating disease”.
See? Flesh-eating! These examples are from a pretty much random sample of 20 pages around the middle area, and they aren’t even the most frightening ones. How can anyone touch anything after reading this?
Of course, it could be that Tierno is a bit exaggerating, but his descriptions seem to me to be accurate enough and fit in with what I already know – that bacteria can live practically anywhere and in almost all conditions. I guess the real thing to be learned here is this: that the human immune system is one badass piece of machinery, which successfully deflects innumerable invasions, agressions, sieges, infiltrations and all out bombardments without us so much as flinching. I tend to get sick about once a year on average, usually with a seasonal cold. There’s an army of tiny flesh-eating soldiers out there just waiting to get me, but all I get is a couple of coughs and sneezes.
Still, Tierno describes a dangerous reality, and takes large precautions to avoid those dangers. If you follow his instructions, you will probably wash your hands about 100 times a day (and remember, effective hand-washing requires at least 20-30 seconds of soap-rubbing, including underneath the fingernails). You will change the clothes you wear to the movies, the food you eat, and the amount of times you pet the dog.
This book is therefore very irritating. The advice Tierno gives seems sound (at least if you really want to avoid germ contact; we won’t discuss “training your immune system”). It’s logical. It’s clear. It makes sense. But it’s also annoying – it involves being “picky”, “overly-hygienic”, and changing habits that I have acquired throughout my whole life. It will require increasing my hand-washing time by an order of magnitude. It will require being conscious of the horrible world of the germs at all times. It involves “not eating sushi” at all because there is a chance that uncooked fish carry a Vibrio germ. It requires checking for fleas and ticks on my groin and behind the ears every time I walk through the woods. In short – it presents a mild inconvenience. This, at the benefit of a potentially longer life span and less sickness. It adds another “worry” to your world.
I’m in conflict. The rational part of me says, “you would be a fool not to embrace this advice. If you don’t, you can forget about me helping you when you contract a new strain of SARS”. The lazy and doesn’t-want-to-be-disturbed part of me says, “I have lived all my life as I do now, and my surrounding and neighbourhood act as I do. We are generally alright; why live your life in worry?”

I guess the question is, “is the extra worry and ritual worth the expected benefit in your life expectation and comfort (due to less sickness)?” To each his own answer. But the good thing is, you can take as much as you want from the book, and leave the rest alone. While I will not embrace the full extent of its writing, it has definitely made me more aware of the general germliness of the world, and probably will affect my overall behavior. To all you germs – make much your time.

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