Customer Reviews: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus
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VINE VOICEon July 23, 2012
It is unfortunate that Rabid's best chapters fall at the end of the book. I loved reading about Louis Pasteur's experiments and the rabies outbreak in Bali. The author, Bill Wasik, finally has real personalities to work with, real scientific challenges to chronicle, real stories to tell. After slogging through the first two-thirds of Rabid I perked up and found myself thinking, "Well, most of this book was a chore to read but this...this!...would make a great magazine article."

And if that sounds like damning by faint praise,'s meant to. Rabid is not one of those books whose defined, narrow subject cuts an exciting trail through the vastness of history. It tries to be. It traces the emergence of rabies from ancient Egypt to the present, it grapples with the cultural history of animal domestication, the interplay between cultural prejudice and scientific discovery, the forward march of science and the sheer power of fear.

It would be awesome, except that it isn't. Huge chunks of the book are very academic, dense, factual prose. Which is interesting if the author has some revolutionary argument to make. Some brilliant idea to frame and polish. Wasik is just cataloguing what seems to be every single historical mention of rabies ever. I felt like I was reading an earnest undergraduate paper and I pitied all of my former professors.

The closer that Wasik gets to the present the more interesting his material. He's got chops enough to make the story of rabies in the modern world pretty fascinating - everything from Louis Pasteur to the present is great. All of a sudden he's writing narrative non-fiction of the kind I like most, where there's a story and characters, challenges to overcome, anecdotes to relate.

There's some good stuff in here, but I'd only recommend the book to people who are either (a) deeply, deeply interested in rabies or (b) really guiltless about skimming the boring bits.
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Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy have explored the disease in "Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus."

"Diabolic," defined as a characteristic of the devil, is a good word to use. The almost always-fatal (if untreated) virus renders its victims 'hydrophobic' - terrified of water. As the victims mind devolves into a virus-ravaged insanity, whatever personality once held by the person or animal disappears, replaced by a no-doubt devilish incoherence and rage.

Every 'zombie' movie basically has rabies as the model - an untreatable disease where killing the victim even before the disease's onset is considered the humane course of action. The authors use examples of Will Smith's "I Am Legend," where his character kills his dog, his only friend, as soon as a rabies-like condition presents itself, and "Old Yeller," the frontier tragedy, which saw the title character unfairly suffer the same fate.

"Rabies" is written as a cultural history, much more than a medical journal or report. It's mostly third-person, until the end. The authors do dwell on various treatment options - and a chapter is given to Louis Pastuer's discovery of the rabies vacciene. But their primary goal is showing how this disease has factored into various cultural fears for hundreds of years.

Even without much true scientific knowledge, the doctors of the Middle Ages and before could still see the link between a 'mad' dog's bite, and the similar, fatal condition that the victim might then suffer. The terror of such a ghastly disease - with such an obvious and common cause - would clearly have made it far more horrible than an equally fatal flu or cancer, where no such link existed.

The authors look into recent British fears about the English Channel Tunnel connecting England and France, and how this new landline might open the island of England to a rabies epidemic.

Which did recently occur in the island of Bali, the authors relate, where an inefficient and poorly executed dog-'culling' program was the response to an epidemic created when one rabid dog arrived on the island. Dozens of Bali, Indonesia citizens died of the disease despite the treatment options - in an island with no recorded rabies cases, nobody believed it could happen.

While at first I wasn't interested in a lengthy chapter that dealt with human's longstanding relationship with dogs, I soon realized that our love and sometimes mistreatment of our dogs comes from our own societal roots. We know that a good dog is loyal and friendly to a fault, but behind the playful eyes is our subconcious knowledge they sometimes carry this humanity-stripping disease.

Just as dogs have been hardwired with a domestic influence over thousands of years, it's fair to say that our cultural reliance on rabies-based horror choices came from generations of this back-of-the-mind fear of an animal we take for granted - until their bite drives us insane.

It is not a "fun" book, but it is exciting and horrifiying, and that does make it compelling and interesting.

This review is based on a complimentary advance review copy.
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on July 19, 2012
This is the second book about the history of a specific medical scourge that I have read in the past year and one half. The first was Siddhartha Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize winning "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" (please see my Amazon review). With "Rapid" I hoped for a second such extraordinary and wonderful ride. What came most to mind though is what Senator Lloyd Bentsen replied to Senator Dan Quayle during the 1988 vice-presidential debate: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

That's a somewhat unfair comparison though, and it's not to say that "Rabid" is not a good book, because it is. It's simply that few books can match "Emperor". "Rapid" is just exactly what its husband and wife authors William Wasik, senior editor of Wired Magazine and veterinarian Monica Murphy say it is -- "a cultural history". "Rapid" saves you doing an internet search using such search words and phrases as "Rabies", "Rabies in Popular Culture", "Rabies History", "Rabies Historical Timeline" and then exploring the many resultant links. And then it pulls all of these play-by-play results together for you, sifts and organizes and edits them, expands a bit on them in some key places, and throws in a lot of juicy color commentary along the way. From the emergence of this horrible problem of rabies at the dawn of mankind and mythology, on down to its scientific discovery and cure, and then on to current medical practice, the authors spread across their book's landscape multiple tales of madness and its often grotesque consequences including how it rears its ugly and frightening head so often in literature.

Do you remember years ago the very long, in depth pieces The New Yorker used to publish on various narrow subjects which were of great interest to those who were already interested in or curious about the subject? Sometimes they were so long they were carried in two parts, over two issues. I think "Rabies" would have been a terrific candidate for such a long piece and William Shawn would have dedicated the space and the needed editorial guidance.

Looked at from that perspective "Rabid" is really pretty good, though stylistically it felt uneven. The second half of the book is more gripping than the first which is almost super-saturated with facts and sometimes was a hard slog for me. Nevertheless, it is easy to skim over those parts, flying at the 15,000 feet level, quickly surveying the territory below, and then slowing down and diving down to 500 feet or maybe even to land temporarily when at various points the book's review of the march of the historical and cultural timeline of rabies sufficiently attracts you.

If you are a reader with only passing and somewhat cursory interest in this subject, and if even at that you are more interested in the historical and cultural aspects of rabies than the medical, I would tell you that it would certainly be worth your while to read this book because the overall subject of rabies itself is fascinating. But I would add the caution that you should be careful not to get bogged down in any one part of it that seems slow. For such a reader I would give it four stars. However, if you are a lay reader keenly interested in medicine and medical science, and in viruses and rabies in particular, then for you I would rate it three stars and I would suggest that you read "Emperor" first if you have not already done so. But since I can only give one rating, and because the subject of rabies is so important, I give "Rabid" an overall four stars.

Kenneth E. MacWilliams
Portland, Maine
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on November 4, 2013
There's not much question but that rabies has loomed large as one of humankind's most dreaded diseases. The authors of this book make the most of that horror, though they often stray away from the announced target of their writing. The slow conquest of this disease--still underway--is the most valuable part of this story. Pasteur's role fighting rabies is deservedly given great attention, as is the less-than-a-century-old cure for the disease at its culminating and most vicious stage.

Unfortunately, the reader will have to wade through irrelevancies, through diseases such as the plague, AIDs and influenza that have scant relation to rabies, through zombies, vampires, madmen and werewolves, through literary references ranging from Shelley's Frankenstein to modern horror novels, through references to films which seldom deal explicitly with the subject, and much else that is often intriguing, but sometimes annoying and too often obvious padding.

Dogs, as the chief vector of rabies, are given special attention, especially in the well written and gruesome section on their role in the rabies epidemic in Bali. Bats receive brief credit for spreading the illness, but other wild animals such as the mongoose, which is all too significant in the spreading of the ailment in South Africa, are virtually ignored.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the recent discovery that an attenuated rabies solution may be the key to overcoming the brain-blood barrier in humans, and thus allowing the transportation of medicines to that region for cures of brain-specific illnesses.

All-in-all, and despite the drawbacks indicated above, readers interested in how disease has affected humankind will find the hours spent with this book definitely rewarding.
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on May 2, 2014
I enjoyed the book but at times my frustration waxed as the author devoted an inordinate amount of space on the connections (or possible connections) between the disease caused by the rabies virus and the classic subjects of horror stories and films: vampires, werewolves and zombies. There were times when I came close to doing the unthinkable when I buy a book for leisure reading (as opposed to reference etc)- skip sections. At best 5 or 6 pages could have been devoted to the tangential connection between the rabies in popular culture and these denizens of horror literature. I just grew really tired of reading about zombies when I bought a book to read about rabies.
The book is also very light on the fascinating biology of the virus itself and how it enters neurons, replicates and propagates. It seems kind of ridiculous that there can be tens of pages on zombies and vampires and essentially nothing on the molecular machinery of the virus and its transmission through an infected organism. I realize that this isn't a book on rabies virology but it is a subject which I expected to be covered in detail rather than in passing.
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on August 17, 2012
I saw this book mentioned in a science magazine and thought, "I have to read this."

So I bought it, expecting to find a lot of interesting, even exciting case studies about rabies.

Instead, I was unhappy to discover that the entire first half of the book was devoted to myths and legends and fables and none of those were even interesting. It seemed to go into a lot of tangents and never seemed to say much specifically.

RABID finally got "to the point" when it began to discuss Louis Pasteur. It seemed to finally get focused, but remember by then, it was halfway through the book.

If you want a more comprehensive book about rabies, I recommend BIOGRAPHIES OF DISEASE: RABIES by P. Dileep Kumar. Kumar's book actually goes into more case studies about people who have contracted the disease and what happened to those people. Although Kumar's book does seem to be a bit technical for the layperson at times and therefore can be a little dry, it nonetheless exposes rabies for the horror it truly is, more so than does this book RABID, which to me, deals too much in legends and myths.
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on July 29, 2012
Many a virus has left its fatal mark on us throughout history, but none is as deeply steeped in legend as the most fatal of them all, the rabies virus. In Rabid Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy present an all-encompassing survey on the topic - from the early days to mythology, from literature to the latest in medicine.
At first glance you might get the impression that the focus in the book is heavily on the medical aspect, yet the authors offer a multifaceted depiction, delving into various areas on which rabies has left an impact throughout history. Filled with lots of facts it is mostly the intriguing background knowledge which made this book such an enjoyable read for me. Needless to say, my favorite part was the one dealing with how the disease found its way into literature, where aspects, or rather symptoms and beliefs about it, helped form creatures such as vampires, werewolves and even zombies.
Admittedly this has been the only book I ever read on this subject, so I'm not sure whether those who are familiar with it would find it lacking in some regard. However, to me, it proved to be just the right amount of information about the virus which is, after so many centuries, still at large. ... as are the creatures it has inspired in many a horror movie.
In short: Everything you ever wanted to know about rabies packed into an entertaining and absorbing read!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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VINE VOICEon July 23, 2016
I've been working my way through as many books on diseases as I can possibly manage. Part of it is sheer curiosity, and basically 'awe and respect' for bacteria and viruses that cause so many of our illnesses. I've been reading about this stuff since the 1990's when I was in school, and then med school. Bacteria and viruses have been here before we were, and may be here after we leave. And as anyone who teaches microbiology and pathophysiology will tell you, some of these viruses and bacteria can alter themselves to gain resistance. And we keep finding new ones to have to worry about like Zika.

Having had past experience with a rabid raccoon who sat on my porch, and then threatened me when I went outside, I definitely wanted to read up on this particular 'monster'. I put this book Rabid on my 'wish' list probably two years ago. So I was thrilled to finally get it and read it. Even though this book was slow in areas where the authors went off on tangents that were remotely acquainted with the topic, the book did meet my own specifications for reading a book like this. It gave historical background, it discussed what the disease is, how it is caused, the background for the vaccine, interesting case studies that have occurred recently. For the most part, I thought the book was well-written.

This is still probably one of the most frightening diseases on the planet...even with Ebola out there. Though we can vaccinate to prevent the disease and have a way to help someone who has been bitten if we get to them early enough, people still die from this agonizing disease even in the United States. I think one of the most important parts of this book was the fact that we still have no good treatments for people who were bitten and didn't know they were exposed to rabies, and so they went for treatment too late. Just this section alone should be read by everyone...then it would impress on people how important it is to get your animals vaccinated, and how important it is to avoid contact with wildlife that may harbor the rabies virus. I think of how many times I've seen children go up and touch a wild animal like a squirrel or chipmunk...and if people read this chapter on this lack of treatment, they wouldn't let their child near something that is wild. (Besides, it isn't safe for the animals either...)

Good book...
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on March 24, 2016
So, I randomly decided to read this book about rabies…because why not? I mean, there’s something inherently fascinating about a virus that has a 100% fatality rate once symptoms are present.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find this to be as thrilling and entertaining as the reviews suggested. The first few chapters focused far too much on the cultural history of the dog, which wasn’t really what I signed up for. It did finally get interesting when the focus shifted to Louis Pasteur and vaccination, zoonotic diseases in general, theories on how rabies has factored into the evolution of vampires and zombies and stories about victims and survivors.

I found some of Wasik’s narrative confusing, and sometimes contradictory. I wound up doing some of my own research to supplement what I was reading. I did learn some interesting things though. Here are two of my favorite takeaways:

- Rabies can cause frequent and involuntary ejaculation in men

- Bat bites are the cause of nearly all human rabies infections in the U.S., accounting for 32 of 33 deaths from domestic exposure since 1990. Why? Because bat bites are so subtle that people can be infected without their being aware of it, especially in the night, when a bat bite is sometimes not even painful enough to wake up a sleeping human. The CDC actually recommends that anyone who awakens with a bat in his or her room seek out vaccination for rabies. Scary, right?

Overall, not as interesting as I wanted it to be. Though, admittedly, I tend to prefer fiction over nonfiction, so it takes a lot for a nonfiction book to truly impress me.
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on December 16, 2013
This disease has always been on my list of illnesses I did not want to get. I found this book and hoped it would cover the young lady with full blown rabies who was saved, making her a very rare survivor of this terrible disease. Throughout history this disease has had a mortality rate of 100% unless the timely use of the Pasteur vaccine intervened. This patient who survived without timely vaccine intervention was fortunate in that her physician aggressively pulled out all stops to save her. The rabies virus is known to travel from the site of the bite through peripheral nerves to the spinal cord and the brain, subsequently to the salivary glands. The young lady who survived was placed in a coma and support of her cardiovascular activity and breathing initiated.

The book also tells about patients who received the Pasteur treatment before becoming ill and were saved.

I found this book to be fascinating, enlightening and very readable. It covers more than the above mentioned cases, and I found it hard to put down.
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