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The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World Paperback – October 2, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
The idiosyncratic thinker and cultural historian Johnson leaps from trumpeting video games (in his previous book Everything Bad Is Good for You) to uncovering the history of murderous cholera infestations in London and the scientific research that revealed the microbial origins of the outbreaks. Sklar reads Johnson's engaging book with a deep, measured baritone that is the embodiment of solidly backed reasonability. Sklar makes each word sound as if it has been chipped into a block of marble, there to rest for all eternity. This is not always conducive to following the flow of Johnson's narrative, but Sklar does well with his voice what Johnson seeks to do with his book: insert a slip into the history book, adding the mundane deaths of working souls and the audacious efforts of scientists into the story of the European march of progress.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
From Bookmarks Magazine
In books such as Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson neatly draws connections between seemingly unconnected aspects of lifethink of James Burke in the digital age. The Ghost Map is no different in applying a 21st-century sensibility to a 19th-century cholera epidemic. According to critics, Johnson makes a single tactical error in the last pages, where he attempts to link the events he describes to too many other contemporary historical trends while ignoring some real-world realities. Regardless, the story is in capable hands, and the lives of individuals and a culture on the cusp of technological and medical advance resonates with readers 150 years later.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
1. Find an event that is historically underappreciated, exciting, and can be described with a vague but interesting title (Example: "The Graves Are Walking" by John Kelly)
2. Hyperbolic sub-title describing this event in grandiose terms (Example: subtitle of a "Operation Mincemeat" by Ben Macintyre is "How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory.")
3. Explain how aftershocks of this event helped shape the modern world (Example: "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" describes the Great Khan as being the godfather of the Enlightenment - by outlawing torture, granted freedom of religion, and ending existing autocratic power structures - even while being a merciless homicidal warlord).
"The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World" fulfills all three of these tenets. Steven Johnson is clearly a smart guy, but in my opinion he spends too much time trying to tie different stories to the story of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak, and "The Ghost Map" suffers for it. Following the aforementioned tenets, he spends way too much time fulfilling tenet 3 rather than tenet 1.
I was very excited to read this book. In 1854 London there was a ferocious outbreak of cholera, that may have lasted longer if not for the actions of doctor John Snow to limit access to the cholera-infected well. I've been familiar with the work of John Snow since I was a kid and was interested to learn more in depth about the environment he grew up in, the conditions of London at the time, and the events of the outbreak itself. At first, Johnson did a great job of setting the stage. After the first couple chapters, you really feel like you know London (and SoHo) at the time. You know what it smells like, what people did, what the London Mayor's office thought about the environment. Johnson does a fine job describing the squalid conditions of the day, and how the prevailing beliefs in the medical profession at the time contributed to continued cholera epidemics. Apparently, mixing sewage and drinking water was not a good idea. Who knew?
However, if you are looking for a book like "The Great Influenza" or "The Great Mortality" that will go into great detail about a dangerous plague and the situation around it, this is not the book for you. After researching the topic after reading "The Ghost Map" I discovered the outbreak killed only 616 people and lasted just over 2 weeks. Am I complaining that only 616 people died? Of course not. I'm simply bringing up the fact that with bigger outbreaks there are far more stories to tell. Personally, I am attracted to books on epidemics and plagues to learn about the situations that create them, how people react to them, who survives them, and the stories those survivors tell. "The Ghost Map" is short on those details, and rather long on details about urban planning.
While we are here, I have to take issue with the sub-title. This is not London's most terrifying epidemic. From cholera alone: 6,000 people died in 1832 London and over 14,000 in 1849 - with 20,000 and 50,000 as the nationwide death tolls. And in the Great Plague of 1665? Over 100,000 dead Londoners (Source: "The Great Plague Of 1665," The National Archive. Retrieved 7/7/2013). Not even mentioning the Black Death. The very thing that made this outbreak understandable (it was confined to Broad Street Pump area) is what drained it of it's terror.
I digress. Because it is such a small outbreak, Johnson spends a bunch of pages following rabbits down holes. You wouldn't think that a story detailing cholera in the 19th Century would have extended interludes on global warming, and Michael Bloomberg's reforms in 21st century New York City. But "The Ghost Map" does. I don't know if Johnson was trying to fill pages or actually wanted to tell a story about city design and planning, but he ended up writing a lot about things that don't have to do with cholera.
So I was very pleased by the parts that were about the outbreak, or John Snow (hero, polymath, anesthesiologist, epidemiologist, teetotaler), or even Victorian London's waste management systems. The frequent jumps to the present and the attempts to tie all logical urban planning to this one event bored me and left me frustrated. That's what I think you should know about the book before picking it up - and please don't believe the subtitle.
This book was well-written and well-researched, but I was far more compelled by the first half of the book. The author plops you down in the sights, smells, and sounds of Victorian London as he sets the stage for the start of the epidemic, and it’s pretty amazing. You really get a sense of what it was like for the residents of Broad Street, much of it is familiar, and the unfamiliar parts are explained with full context. However, once the investigation gets underway, it felt like there wasn’t a full book length of material there, and the author was trying to stretch it in creative ways. He talks up the opposing viewpoints of Whitehead and Snow, but there’s no drama there – Snow had the evidence, and Whitehead was convinced by it. Some of the later material also seemed a little repetitive. And occasionally the author goes on tangents where he draws conclusions that didn’t really matter to the narrative, but worse, didn’t seem backed up by anything (I checked the citations) – one example being alcoholism as an evolutionary predilection for some races of people.
The conclusion of the book was also somewhat weak, there was a bunch of tangential stuff about the various things maps are useful for, and the connection to the cholera outbreak map was extremely tenuous. The author also takes the opportunity to advocate strongly for his belief that humans should be striving for urbanization, which also didn’t seem connected to the rest of the book other than the fact that London is a city.
Overall, I’d recommend this book for its engaging portrayal of what it was like to live in 1854 London and to learn more about how humanity started making meaningful progress into investigating and managing epidemics. It’s definitely a popular non-fiction book though, and prioritizes shock value over thoroughness.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Best part is the good story of how science truly does work, and why it takes so long and so...Read more