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Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 163 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0670023738
ISBN-10: 0670023736
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Editorial Reviews


“A searing narrative.”
—The New York Times
“In this keen and exceptionally well-written book, rife with surprises, narrative suspense and a steady flow of expansive insights, ‘the world’s most diabolical virus’ conquers the unsuspecting reader’s imaginative nervous system. . . . A smart, unsettling, and strangely stirring piece of work.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Fascinating. . . . Wasik and Murphy chronicle more than two millennia of myths and discoveries about rabies and the animals that transmit it, including dogs, bats and raccoons.”
—The Wall Street Journal
Rabid delivers the drama of Louis Pasteur’s courageous work developing the rabies vaccine at the same time it details the disease’s place in our cultural history, taking us from Homer to the Bronte sisters to Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Matheson. . . . All along the book’s prose and pace shine—the book is as fast as the virus is slow.”
—The Seattle Times
“A very readable, fascinating account of a terrifying disease….Wasik and Murphy grippingly trace the cultural history of the disease. . . . Rabid reminds us that the disease is a chilling, persistent reminder of our own animal connections, and of the simple fact that humans don’t call all of the shots.”
—The Boston Globe
“Compelling. . . . Murphy and Wasik give life, context and understanding to the terrifying disease. Like the virus itself, this fascinating book moves quickly, exploring both the marginalized status and deadly nature of the virus. And as the authors trace the influence of rabies through history, Rabid becomes nearly impossible to put down.”
—New Scientist
“An elegant exploration of the science behind one of the most horrible way to die.”
—Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail
“This book is not for the squeamish. Yet those who are fascinated by how viruses attack the body, by the history of vaccination and by physicians’ efforts to save the most desperately ill patients will want to read it. There is also a happy ending: scientists are working to harness rabies as a potent drug delivery vehicle.”
—Scientific American
“[Wasik and Murphy] offer an in-depth look at a disease so insidious that it even turns our best friends—dogs—against us. The pair convincingly link the history of rabies…with the history of man’s fear of nature and the unknown, and our own latent capacity for beastliness.”
—The Daily Beast
“Thrilling, smart, and devilishly entertaining, Rabid is one of those books that changes your sense of history—and reminds us how much our human story has been shaped by the viruses that live among us.”
—Steven Johnson, author of The Ghost Map
“Rabies has always been as much metaphor as disease, making it an excellent subject for cultural history. . . . As Wasik and Murphy document . . . the horror of rabies has been with us since the beginning of human civilization.”
“Funny and spry. . . . It’s a rare pleasure to read a nonfiction book by authors who research like academics but write like journalists.”
—Alice Gregory, n+1
 “Readable, fascinating, informative, and occasionally gruesome, this is highly recommended for anyone interested in medical history or the cultural history of disease.”
Library Journal (starred review)
“Take Bill Wasik, one of our most perceptive journalistic storytellers, have him join forces with Monica Murphy, scholar of public health, and you end up with this erudite, true-life creep show of a book. It turns out that the rabies virus is a good bit more fascinating and at least as frightening as any of those blood-thirsty monsters that have stalked our fairy tales, multiplexes, and dreams.”
—Donovan Hohn, author of Moby Duck
“Ambitious and smart.”
—Publisher’s Weekly
“Terrible virus, fascinating history in Rabid.”
“As entertaining as they are on rabies in culture, the authors also eruditely report on medicine and public health issues through history, from ancient Assyria to Bali to Manhattan in the last five years, showing that while the disease may be contained, it may never be fully conquered. Surprisingly fun reading about a fascinating malady.”
—Kirkus Reviews
“The ultimate weird dad book.”
—Very Short List
“The rabies virus is a microscopic particle of genes and proteins. And yet it has cast a fearful shadow over all of human history. Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy have produced an eerily elegant meditation on disease and madness, dogs and vampires. It's as infectious as its subject.”
—Carl Zimmer, NPR contributor and author of Parasite Rex
 “A fun read, rivaling a Stephen King novel for page-turning thrills.”
—The Awl

About the Author

Bill Wasik is a senior editor at Wired and was formerly a senior editor at Harper’s; he writes on technology, media, and crowd dynamics. Monica Murphy holds degrees in public health from Johns Hopkins University and in veterinary medicine from the University of Minnesota. They are married and live with their son and whippet in Oakland, California.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1 edition (July 19, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670023736
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670023738
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (163 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #694,239 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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, well...it'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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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