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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 Hardcover – October 19, 2006

4.2 out of 5 stars 391 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. On August 28, 1854, working-class Londoner Sarah Lewis tossed a bucket of soiled water into the cesspool of her squalid apartment building and triggered the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the city's history. In this tightly written page-turner, Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You) uses his considerable skill to craft a story of suffering, perseverance and redemption that echoes to the present day. Describing a city and culture experiencing explosive growth, with its attendant promise and difficulty, Johnson builds the story around physician John Snow. In the face of a horrifying epidemic, Snow (pioneering developer of surgical anesthesia) posited the then radical theory that cholera was spread through contaminated water rather than through miasma, or smells in the air. Against considerable resistance from the medical and bureaucratic establishment, Snow persisted and, with hard work and groundbreaking research, helped to bring about a fundamental change in our understanding of disease and its spread. Johnson weaves in overlapping ideas about the growth of civilization, the organization of cities, and evolution to thrilling effect. From Snow's discovery of patient zero to Johnson's compelling argument for and celebration of cities, this makes for an illuminating and satisfying read. B&w illus. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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 life—think 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.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; 1 edition (October 19, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594489254
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594489259
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (391 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #40,400 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is surprisingly, one fascinating and important read that spins the historical reality of pathogenic disease with a well crafted story regarding the plight of a society facing a treacherous epidemic. Combining an in-depth view regarding the indefatigable energy and brilliance of Dr. John Snow in his quest to solve the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the history of London, with the history of epidemic plagues, `The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic- And How it Changed Cities, Science, and The Modern World' provided me with one page-turning, gripping historical tale that also provided further insight into the plight free societies face today in lieu of the possabilities of biological or chemical attacks on innocent people.

When I was recommended to read Steven Johnson's book, it was not for the sake of diving into a good read, but rather to `browse' through it for further insight on the origins of water contamination and how, thru these origins, terrorist could look at contamination for horrific purposes. As a writer with an interest in international affairs, and a tendency to use fiction storytelling to share my views, I opened Steven Johnson's book and within pages was completely hooked on this extraordinarily written, well researched tell all of the London epidemic of cholera that killed so many lives.

With reflection on how science viewed pathogenic outbreaks during the midpoint of the 19th Century, it was startling to find that there really existed a classification system that gave all sorts of bizarre reasons why a disease would spread, including a weight based upon wealth and financial disposition! We sure have come a long way . . . or have we?
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Format: Hardcover
The Ghost Map uses the Cholera outbreak in London in 1854 to weave together a compelling story of science, demographics and superstition. Rather than just engaging in a straightforward narrative about the outbreak, Johnson dives into a truly interesting analysis of the fear with which people viewed city living in the 1850s. Back then, nobody knew if a city of 2 million people, like London, would simply crumble under its own social weight. He also digs deeply into the science and medicine of the time (or lack thereof) and how it treated an outbreak like 1854's. In addition, he lays out the story of John Snow doing true scientific work, finding the real cause of the outbreak, winning some important converts, failing to win others, but ultimately saving many lives.

What makes the book so good is the way it places you into the mind of someone living in London in 1854 and making you understand why it was so hard for them to accept the true cause of the disease when it seems so obvious to us today. That experience makes a thoughtful reader wonder what things we take for granted today that will seem so obviously wrong in 150 years.

The book stays at four stars, not five, for several reasons. First off, the actual namesake of the book, The Ghost Map, is little more than a tacked-on afterthought at the conclusion of the book. It's interesting, but more of a post-script than anything else, and certainly not appropriate as the title of the book - somebody must have thought it sounded like it would sell books. No worries though, the book it sells is a good one.

Also, Johnson goes on some odd tangents at the end of the book talking about city life and trying to tie internet technology back to the work Snow did. It's a reach and not terribly relevant.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Ghost Map is an engrossing tale of medical detection and discovery. In 1854 a London neighborhood was suddenly plunged into a massive cholera epidemic. The actual disease was awful enough, but ignorance added to the fear felt by Londoners, because no one understood the true method by which cholera spread from one victim to another. Prevailing medical opinion held that cholera, like nearly all other diseases, was spread through miasmas, bad air and bad smells.

Two men, Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead, began to suspect that the true culprit was water from the neighborhood pump and conducted an assiduous investigation that finally proved them right. Although most doctors and scientists were reluctant to discard the miasma theory, eventually the weight of the evidence convinced them that Snow and Whitehead were correct.

Like all good histories, The Ghost Map branches from the main story to trace the many different ways in which Snow and Whitehead's investigations helped lead to the development of modern cities. I especially enjoyed the final chapters and epilogue, in which Johnson identifies many ways in which our modern mega-cities are both more vulnerable (yet thanks to technology and communications safer and better able to cope with threats as well) than was London in 1854.

The Ghost Map is an engrossing read, well written, scholarly, yet dramatic too. It will appeal to historians and fans of medical detection alike.
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Format: Hardcover
As I've indicated in my header for this review, I think parts of this book are great but parts are frustrating. I debated between three and four stars, 3.5 is about what I feel would be just.

Great: the background on Victorian sanitation and the human ecology that grew up about this sanitation (or lack thereof). For example, I bet you didn't know there was a whole occupation devoted to the collection of "pure" (dog poo) used in the tanning process. The details of the spread of cholera in the outbreak traced by Dr. Snow are fascinating, as is the dissection of the cult of miasma. The varnished cover, with a ghostly map (but it's not *the ghost map*) appearing at the right angle is very cool.

Not so great: This is a book called "The Ghost Map". It could use a great deal more cartography. The wonderful cover to the despite, there's no reproduction that I could see of the eponymous ghost map in the book.

The book could also have used a good editor, or at least some more self-editing on the part of Mr. Johnson. Coverage of Victorian sanitation, Dr. Snow, and the cholera outbreak of 1854 is fascinating every icky step of the way. But when Johnson heads out of the limits of his tale and heads into Jane Jacobs territory, his chapters begin to sound like lightly reworked Wired articles. Johnson's thoughts on global warming, for example, really do not belong in this book. A more disciplined approach to narrative could have produced a great and classic title. Alas, this book is not.
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