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A grim, gripping tale of a real life outbreak
by greebs on January 27, 2009The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson is a book that I was eager to buy, as it sounded like a fascinating view of the last great cholera outbreak in London. According to the subtitle, this book is an account of “London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World.”
That’s a pretty good sell.
Indeed, the book lives up to that claim, mostly. It starts out describing London in the mid 1800’s, and the descriptions are bleak.
The Ghost Map largely tells the story of John Snow, who thought otherwise, and used a scientific method of mapping the deaths from a new outbreak of cholera to see if he could trace it back to a source – and did so, finding the Broad Street Well to be the culprit. He was persuasive enough to convince the city to turn off the well, and in doing so, managed to be the first to use a scientific method to alter public policy. At the same time, a man named Reverend Whitehead was doing a similar investigation – and while diametrically opposed to Snow’s approach, largely came up with the same conclusions.
The Ghost Map paints this story very well, but it is not a perfect book. It repeats some facts several times, as if this had been originally written as a series of articles. And in the epilogue, Johnson somehow brings up terrorism, the internet and climate change, among other things. He does a damn good job in talking about them…but the relevance is a bit strained. A better approach would have been making a shorter book, and a tighter read. Finally, it’s hard to believe this, but while the “ghost map” is reproduced in this book, it’s actually easy to miss – given its importance in the story, that’s a serious oversight by the publisher.
Overall, a very interesting read with a few flaws. Definitely recommended.
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