August 15, 2018

Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map:
The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--
And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

by Steven Johnson

Genres: British History, Science, Nonfiction, Heath & Medicine
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
Length: 299 pages
Published: October 19, 2006
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars 

Official Book Summary:

"From Steven Johnson, the dynamic thinker routinely compared to James Gleick, Dava Sobel, and Malcolm Gladwell, The Ghost Map is a riveting page-turner about a real-life historical hero, Dr. John Snow. It's the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure -- garbage removal, clean water, sewers -- necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.

In a triumph of multidisciplinary thinking, Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories and interconnectedness of the spread of disease, contagion theory, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a riveting history and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in."


“How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline: the sociology of error.”

Excerpt: (from Chapter One)

"It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers. Just the names alone read now like some kind of exotic zoological catalogue: bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshers, shoremen. These were the London underclasses, at least a hundred thousand strong. So immense were their numbers that had the scavengers broken off and formed their own city, it would have been the fifth-largest in all of England. But the diversity and precision of their routines were more remarkable than their sheer number. Early risers strolling along the Thames would see the toshers wading through the muck of low tide, dressed almost comically in flowing velveteen coats, their oversized pockets filled with stray bits of copper recovered from the water's edge. The toshers walked with a lantern strapped to their chest to help them see in the predawn gloom, and carried an eight-foot-long pole that they used to test the ground in front of them, and to pull themselves out when they stumbled into a quagmire. The pole and the eerie glow of the lantern through the robes gave them the look of ragged wizards, scouring the foul river's edge for magic coins. Beside them fluttered the mud-larks, often children, dressed in tatters and content to scavenge all the waste that the toshers rejected as below their standards: lumps of coal, old wood, scraps of rope."

My Book Review:

A fascinating and gross look at the cesspools, sewers, smells, contaminated drinking water, and poop (so much poop!) involved in the 1854 cholera outbreak in London.

As a nineteenth-century scholar, the book provided everything for which I was looking: I learned much, cringed frequently, and was able to better understand just how quickly the cholera epidemic spread and why it was so difficult for contemporary experts to figure out how to stop the disease and save innumerable lives.

I would easily award the book four stars for its very interesting and in-depth research, but the conclusion and epilogue felt far too long. If you are interested in medical history, science and diseases, or just enjoy descriptions capable of making you gag, then this book for you.

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