Humdinger in the everyday: Greg Jenner’s A Million Years in a Day
Have you ever wondered why potatoes are a staple food, why smelly people repel us, or why your excrements flush down the toilet? This book has it all; basically, it provides all the answers to life’s most serious questions in bowel movement metaphor. Tongue and cheek aside, Greg Jenner, a public historian who works at the BBC with Horrible Histories, considers social and cultural aspects of human mannerisms throughout the centuries in his new book A Million Years in a Day.
The book is divided into 14 chapters, each themed around a daily activity, which together chart modern man’s progression through a single day. Some of the most interesting sections in the book are those about clocks, taking a crap, keeping in touch, and getting into bed. While all provide humorous jokes and comments, these sections stand out as the strongest. Jenner begins and ends his book with the concept of time by looking first at the earliest sun-based clocks in the ancient world and ending his book with the invention of the mechanical clock.
Jenner’s section on toilet usage from the Stone Age era to the Modern era is by far the most interesting section of the book, as it unflinchingly discusses (probably) the most embarrassing part of human existence. The section provides not only an entertaining succession of toilet jokes, but its main thesis is how we view bowel movements has changed vastly as new cultures and social roles developed, which exemplifies changes in religion and rule.
Of Roman times, Jenner writes: “public bogs (forica) were open rooms where people, possibly of mixed genders, sat side by side on long benches and gossiped politely while they emptied their bowels into the sewers below. Being a Briton for whom even eye contact on a tube train is unbearably intrusive, this fills me with mortifying dread, but the Romans were clearly not so perturbed. ”.
Another highlight of this chapter is the anecdote about King Charles II moving his court in 1665 to Oxford to avoid the plague. Oxford residents reported “that the king’s entourage ‘left their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coalhouses, cellars.’ Cleaning that house must have been a hugely unpleasant Easter egg hunt. ”
For the academic historian, Jenner’s book provides a breath of fresh air (as one would hope, since our sanitation has improved quite a bit…well, that was not nearly as clever as Jenner’s phraseology) into the type of writing and accessibility many are missing from their writing to a general audience. It is difficult to find a balance between a serious, factual tone and humorous one, but this is what Jenner excels at. At the end of the book, Jenner provides a bibliography of further reading material for interested readers. Most of the works listed are by academic publishing houses, as Jenner gives a nod toward “serious historians”.
In certain parts, further explanation would have given better context on the society and culture in question. For example, in his discussion of the division of Ancient Greek men and women in bath houses and why most of them were created for men, Jenner does not go into detail about why women were not allowed to enter them. While this is not a serious omission, further detail would have provided more meaningful context. Overall, Greg Jenner’s tone and outrageously hilarious idioms makes A Million Years in a Day a pleasure to read and a good introduction for those who pretend not to be interested at all in history.