The Secret House Critical Essays

David Bodanis


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Although The Secret House is not a work of fiction, it reads with the same sense of drama as does good fiction. One could say that Bodanis uses no characters to achieve this sense of drama, or one could say that he uses billions, even trillions. There are no human characters other than the faceless and nameless occupants of the house and their dinner guests, and they are mere stage props. On the other hand, Bodanis parades before the reader endless masses of insects, germs, bacteria, and other invisible inhabitants of the secret house. In a very real sense, they are the characters of the book.

Bodanis is interested in those realities that lie behind daily existence, which most people take for granted. The secret houses that humans inhabit seem to be one thing to the naked eye, but to the microscopic eye they are something vastly different. By focusing on a typical day in the life of one house and its two occupants, Bodanis provides the reader with a microscopic eye and thus brings to light the secrets of the secret house.

Having brushed their teeth with toothpaste made up of 30 to 45 percent water, chalk, some titanium dioxide to make it white, some gummy molecules from seaweed, paraffin oil, and a large helping of detergent, the occupants of the house descend to the kitchen for breakfast. This meal, for many people, is a culinary highlight; for others, it is simply a quick cup of coffee to get the body ready to face the day. After reading Bodanis’ treatment of the breakfast scene and all that goes into it, one might wish that the normal eating routine consisted of only two meals per day—or better yet, none at all. They are aware of neither the ingredients that have gone into their toothpaste nor the hordes of bacteria that await them in the kitchen. After a description of the egg in the refrigerator that has been absorbing bacteria all night through microscopic holes in its shell, Bodanis turns to the kettle in which the water is boiling for coffee. Reminiscent of long-gone cretaceous lagoons, the kettle’s interior is populated by great numbers of floating creatures that merge and grow in their bubbling home, exuding an ancient form of oxygen that wafts across the kitchen. Some of these creatures make it into the coffee cup, perhaps to be joined there by bacteria from the milk used to dilute the coffee.

Next comes the margarine, which was invented during the reign of Napoleon III as a cheap source of fat for those who could not afford butter. Today soy fat joins fat from squished herrings and fat from pigs as the base for margarine—an unpalatable mess indeed. Low-grade milk is added, however, along with extra-strong dyes and flavorings, to make it all resemble the pictures of sunkissed meadows on the package, before it is spread thickly over toast, rolls, pancakes, and the like.


(The entire section is 1161 words.)