Friday, November 21, 2008

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Have you ever seen a TV mystery where the murder is clearly shown in the first scene and you watch the detective solve the case as the show goes on? That is how this amazing non-fiction book begins. From the very first pages of The Ghost Map we know what caused the 1854 outbreak of cholera in London, England. The next two hundred pages are dedicated to the sleuthing efforts of a young doctor and an Anglican curate who follow clues that not only solve the mystery, but help to change science forever.

Don’t read this book if you have a weak stomach. It starts with graphic descriptions of the human excrement that was piling up in 19th Century London (before sewage plants were even thought of there) which is followed by a description of Fanny Burney’s mastectomy with only a glass of wine for anesthesia (!) If you can get past that you’ll love reading about how John Snow stubbornly bucked the scientific standards of his day by going against the popular theory called “Miasma”, the idea that putrid smells were the chief cause of illness.

Johnson writes of Snow’s courage: It was, on the face of it, a staggering display of investigative work, given the manic condition of the neighborhood itself. In the twenty-four hours since he’d received Farr’s [statistics], Snow had tracked down intimate details of behavior from the surviving family and neighbors of more than seventy people. The fearlessness of the act still astonishes: as the neighborhood emptied in terror from the most savage outbreak in the city’s history, Snow spent hour after hour visiting the houses that had suffered the worst – houses that were, in fact, still under assault… Wherever cholera was present, there he was in the midst.

Although Snow was responsible for curbing the spread of disease and for ushering in a new scientific discovery, it wasn’t until many years later that he was given credit for his efforts. Johnson concludes: History has its epic thresholds where the world is transformed in a matter of minutes – a leader is assassinated, a volcano erupts, a constitution is ratified. But there are other, smaller, turning points that are no less important. A hundred disparate historical trends converge in a single, modest act. It’s not that the world is changed instantly; the change itself takes many years to become visible. But the change is no less momentous for its quiet evolution. (p. 162)

Overall this is an excellent book that presents a slice of life in 1850’s London. It is much more than a history book because it is loaded with human interest stories and accounts of scientific misconceptions and breakthroughs. (The author’s belief in the theory of Evolution comes through strongly and continuously – almost to the point of being annoying, but I would not let that keep you from reading a book that will introduce you to an amazing era in British history.) Now I plan to read some fiction based on that time period. Bleak House by Dickens was a book Johnson quoted a lot so I may try it.


Beth F said...

Thanks for the review! I hadn't heard of this one.

Sandra said...

I read all of your posts from the Adler book up to this one. You write good reviews. And happily you read serious novels, not just the popular or best seller stuff. When I am in the mood for medical non-fiction, I may try this one. And the Adler book is up my alley because I love books about books. And thank you for visiting and commenting on my litblog.

Ken Brown said...

It sounds like an interesting book; I'll have to check it out!

BTW, I wonder whether you've read Steven Johnson's earlier book: Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. It's interesting, though not entirely convincing. Basically, he offers a response to Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, defending the value of television and the like. If you're curious, I've got a review here.

Rachel said...

I'm adding this to my list of books to read. Thanks for the review!