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Need a delicious book to chomp into? We’ve found eight great lit picks with bite, including critically acclaimed novels, a 19th-century play, and must-read nonfiction. All delve into the lives of dentists or the greater significance of our smiles for human health, history, and identity. Because as any dental pro knows, you can learn a lot about a person from their teeth.
So whether you’re in the mood for an adventure in the Alaskan wilderness, a romantic farce, or parenting advice that could change your child’s life, we’ve got a good read for your grin. Dive in!
By Joshua Ferris (2014)
Dental Pro: Dentist Dr. Paul O’Rourke
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this funny and profound novel delves into a curmudgeonly dentist’s search for meaning in life.
From Fresh Air on NPR:
“Staring into the mouths of his patients all day, the dentist in Joshua Ferris’ new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, becomes obsessed with decay and death. He wishes he had religious faith and could believe in something larger than himself, but to him church is ‘a dark bus station of the soul.’
“Ferris says he started the novel by first imagining a reasonable and devoted atheist as his protagonist — Paul O’Rourke — and how this character wrestles with the meaning of life and finding community. He also chose a dentist as his protagonist because dentists can symbolize isolation.
“‘The dentist tends to remind you of pain and the possibility of decay and disease,’ Ferris tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. ‘And I think that’s part of the reason why dentists are chronically misunderstood and nobody wants to go see a dentist ….’”
“I encouraged my patients to floss. It was hard to do some days. They should have flossed. Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years. It’s also time consuming and a general pain in the ass. That’s not the dentist talking. That’s the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What’s the point? In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide. But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain — rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve — and what I called hope, what I called courage, above all what I called defiance, again rose up in me, and I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, ‘You must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference.’”
by Dave Eggers (2016)
Dental Pro: Dentist “Josie”
After losing her dental practice, Josie takes off for Alaska with her two children, leading to an unexpected adventure in the wilderness of “the last frontier” and modern American life.
By Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times:
“Dave Eggers’s captivating 2012 novel, A Hologram for the King, was both a sad-funny portrait of a man in the midst of a midlife crisis and a light-handed allegory about the current frustrations of middle-class America. His latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, is a kind of bookend to Hologram: another midlife crisis, captured in media res — through the story of Josie, a former dentist on the run from a bad relationship and on the lam in Alaska with her two children.
The novel is a slapdash, picaresque adventure and spiritual coming-of-age tale —On the Road crossed with Henderson the Rain King with some nods to National Lampoon’s Vacation along the way. It’s not as moving as Hologram and hardly as bravura a performance as the author’s stunning debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but Mr. Eggers has so mastered the art of old-fashioned, straight-ahead storytelling here that the reader quickly becomes immersed in Josie’s funny-sad tale.”
“With incredible clarity she knew, then, that the answer to her life was that at every opportunity she made precisely the wrong choice. She was a dentist but did not want to be a dentist. What could she do now? She was sure, at that moment, that she was meant to be a tugboat captain. My god, she thought, my god. At forty she finally knew! She would lead the ships to safety.”
by George Barnard Shaw (1897)
Dental Pro: Dentist Dr. Valentine
This four-act play is a seaside comedy of errors in which a dentist named Dr. Valentine falls in love with his first patient.
By David C. Nichols in the Los Angeles Times:
“First published in 1897, ‘Never’ is Shaw’s response to Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ There are surface similarities in structure, characters and farcical complications of rising action.
“But whereas Wilde trained his incomparable wit on self-justified satire, Shaw, as ever, had denser societal concerns. The still-trenchant topics include women’s equality, economic inequity and marital pragmatism versus romantic attraction.”
THE DENTIST. That was my first tooth.
THE YOUNG LADY (aghast). Your first! Do you mean to say that you began practising on me?
THE DENTIST. Every dentist has to begin on somebody.
THE YOUNG LADY. Yes: somebody in a hospital, not people who pay.
THE DENTIST (laughing). Oh, the hospital doesn’t count. I only meant my first tooth in private practice. Why didn’t you let me give you gas?
THE YOUNG LADY. Because you said it would be five shillings extra.
THE DENTIST (shocked). Oh, don’t say that. It makes me feel as if I had hurt you for the sake of five shillings.
THE YOUNG LADY (with cool insolence). Well, so you have! (She gets up.) Why shouldn’t you? it’s your business to hurt people. (It amuses him to be treated in this fashion: he chuckles secretly as he proceeds to clean and replace his instruments. She shakes her dress into order; looks inquisitively about her; and goes to the window.)
by Valeria Luiselli (2015)
Named one of the best books of 2015 by The New York Times, NPR, The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others, The Story of My Teeth tells the tale of a quirky tooth collector in Mexico. The author playfully reimagines storytelling without pretension, leading NPR to call it a “funhouse of a read.”
By Jim Crusoe in The New York Times:
“On its not-so-placid surface, Valeria Luiselli’s second novel is the tale of a guy named Gustavo (Highway) Sánchez Sánchez, who auctions off his old teeth, claiming they are from the mouths of Plato, Montaigne, Virginia Woolf and Borges, among others. Then he takes his profits and buys a set of teeth that supposedly belonged to Marilyn Monroe, implanting them in his own mouth. After that, things go well for a while until Highway’s son, Siddhartha, knocks him out and steals Monroe’s teeth, leaving his dad chopperless. Eventually Highway runs into a man named Voragine (an abyss?) who helps him, and who later appears to be the person telling this story. Along the way, the names of Proust, Unamuno, Foucault, Walser, Cortázar and Raymond Roussel burst out of random paragraphs like startled grouse.
“The story part of ‘The Story of My Teeth’ is told with considerable charm, and the name-dropping is just enough to signal that there’s more afoot here than merely an old-fashioned good time. There are other whiffs of philosophy, philology and excursions into other short tales as well. Then, just about the time a reader may ask where all of this is heading, the narrative stops cold and the book gets really interesting …”
“For months after the operation, I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. I showed everyone the infinite line of my new smile, and whenever I passed a mirror or a shop window that reflected my image, I would raise my hat in a gentlemanly fashion and smile at myself. My thin, ungainly body and my rather ungrounded life had acquired serious aplomb with the appearance of my new teeth. My luck was without equal, my life was a poem, and I was certain that one day, someone was going to write the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography.”
by Sandra Kahn & Paul R. Ehrlich (2018)
No, it’s not about monster sharks. Written by pioneering orthodontist Sandra Kahn and world-renowned evolutionist Paul R. Ehrlich, Jaws: The Story of a Hidden Epidemic makes a startling claim: Modern life (soft foods, poor posture, allergens, living in confined spaces) is causing the human jaw to shrink, leading to crooked, overcrowded teeth, and, for many kids, years of braces.— Recommended by Chrystle Cu, dentist and Cocofloss cofounder
By John Peterson Myers, Chief Scientist, Environmental Health Sciences:
“Every new parent should chew on this book. Who knew that how we suckle, chew and breathe as an infant can set us off on a course toward serious orthodontic treatment, a life of sleep apnea, cardiovascular problems and sudden death while sleeping? Kahn and Ehrlich clearly and comprehensively describe a hidden epidemic that impairs the health of far too many people, young and old. They explore the causes of the epidemic, and crucially, provide practical advice that helps you prevent the epidemic from affecting your child, or amazingly, how its progress can be reversed in childhood if it has already started. This book should be in every new mom’s care package when she leaves the hospital.”
“Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had spacious jaws, with a continuous smoothly curved arch of teeth in each jaw, including third molars (‘wisdom teeth’) at the back ends of the arches. Indeed, Stanford evolutionist Richard Klein, a top expert on our species’ fossil record, has told us that he personally had never seen an early human skull with crooked teeth.”
by Dr. Steven Lin (2018)
Dr. Steven Lin, an experienced dentist and the world’s first dental nutritionist, has analyzed our ancestral traditions, epigenetics, gut health, and the microbiome in order to develop food-based principles for a literal top-down holistic health approach. Merging dental and nutritional science, Dr. Lin lays out the dietary program that can help ensure you won’t need dental fillings or cholesterol medications — and give you the resources to raise kids who develop naturally straight teeth.— Recommended by Chrystle Cu, dentist and Cocofloss cofounder
By Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution and Wired to Eat:
“Dental health is almost a forgotten topic when we think about our overall health, but what if the health of our teeth and gums could alert us to problems like diabetes and Alzheimer’s? Dr. Lin makes a powerful case for not only paying more attention to our dental health, but he makes the case that what is healthy for the mouth, is healthy for our whole being.”
“Dental disease is a painstakingly obvious message that something is very wrong in the bodyas a whole. Your mouth is your foundation for health, and the way you treat it is the exact way that your body will treat you back.”
by Mary Otto (2017)
An NPR best book of 2017, Teeth looks inside America’s mouth, revealing unsettling truths about our unequal society.
By Sara Jaffe in The New York Times:
“The problem of oral health in America is, Otto argues, part of the larger debate about health that is likely to grow larger and nastier in the upcoming months. At the moment, our broader health care system at least tenuously operates on the belief that no one should be denied health care because of ability to pay. But dental care is still associated in our minds with cosmetic practices, with beauty and privilege. It is simultaneously frivolous, a luxury for those who can waste money, and a personal responsibility that one is harshly judged for neglecting. In this context, ‘Teeth’ becomes more than an exploration of a two-tiered system — it is a call for sweeping, radical change.”
“The teeth are made from stern stuff. They can withstand floods, fires, even centuries in the grave. But the teeth are no match for the slow-motion catastrophe that is a life of poverty: its burdens, distractions, diseases, privations, low expectations, transience, the addictive antidotes that offer temporary relief at usurious rates.”
by Tanya M. Smith (2018)
In The Tales Teeth Tell, biological anthropologist Tanya Smith offers an engaging and surprising look at what teeth tell us about the evolution of primates — including our own uniqueness.
By Barbara Kiser in Nature:
“Biological anthropologist Tanya Smith drills into what disinterred teeth, as ‘sophisticated time machines,’ can tell us about individuals, our species, and the deep past. Her study — technically chewy yet thoroughly engaging — examines the human story through dental development, evolution, and related behaviour, interlacing vivid anecdotes from her scientific career. The result is a mix of fascinating findings at all scales, from scanning electron microscopy displaying the exquisite geometry of enamel prisms, to toothpick use among hominins some 2 million years ago.”
“Teeth are unlike any other body part, recording physiological rhythms as often as every 8–12 hours, and as infrequently as every season or year. Kids today learn about annual tree rings in elementary school, yet many dentists and oral health specialists are surprisingly unaware that the focus of their livelihoods is a sophisticated time machine — one that, amazingly, goes all the way back to before birth.”
Want to make a cute bookmark that will double as a reminder to floss? Weave together a few pieces of Cocofloss into a simple rope-style bracelet (check out our quick tutorial!) and pop it into your book so you’ll never lose your place — or forget to relax and floss while you read.