Saturday, July 5, 2014

THE GHOST MAP: THE STORY OF LONDON’S MOST TERRIFYING EPIDEMIC--AND HOW IT CHANGED SCIENCE, CITIES, AND THE MODERN WORLD by Steven Johnson (✰✰✰)


Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map centers around a city (London, England), a doctor (John Snow), and a minister (Henry Whitehead) during the cholera epidemic that struck with particular virulence in a contained area of the city in 1854.  At that time, it was unknown how the disease was transmitted and why certain areas and people seemed to remain immune.  Dr. John Snow and minister Henry Whitehead performed groundbreaking, feet-on-the-ground research in the area in which they both lived and worked, on and around Broad Street, which forever changed the way cholera epidemics were managed in cities.  Dr. Snow was one of the first to chart victims on a map, leading to a clearer picture of where the inception of the epidemic might lie, and thus the title of the book.
The story of these two men and the people of Broad Street and its environs, which comprises about two-thirds of the book, was definitely the high point for me, although I felt that the book could have used tighter editing, as segments of information were repeated far too many times and stated statistics were refuted, often on same page.  For instance:
”There were four hundred people per acre in Soho in 1854, in London’s most densely populated neighborhood.  The Twin Towers sat on approximately one acre of real estate, and yet they harbored a population of 50,000 on a work day.”  And in the next paragraph: “Even if you could have hijacked an airplane back in John Snow’s day, you’d have been hard-pressed to find an area crowded enough to kill a hundred civilians on the ground.”
Not to mention within the book itself: ”In 1851, the subdistrict of Berwick Street..., with 432 people per acre. (Even with its skyscrapers, Manhattan today only houses around 100 per acre.)” 
Are we the reader supposed to catch the finely split hair of “workday” vs. “houses”?  Neither set of statistics is backed up by source information.
Despite the editing issues, the book remained a solid four star read for me until the final segment dealing with epidemic disease in the modern age.  While the 1854 segments were written with absolute objectivity, the latter half contained the pronoun “I” far too often for what is purported to be a serious work of science and history writing.  To say that Johnson turns the book into a platform to declare his personal views is not at all hyperbolic; I even used the word “rant” in my notes.

Without his annoying insertion of self into the sections on modern day cities and their infrastructure relative to bio-weapons and nuclear threat, they would have been far more thought provoking and relevant.  Not only did he interject his own views into the topic at hand, but some information often stretched the lines of connectivity to his subject to a snapping point.  For example, he spent considerable ink on environmental issues and global warming, defending cities as more sustainable than a similar population spread across a greater land area.  While his arguments were solid, this section strayed too far from the topic of the book and felt as if these are causes that the author cares deeply about and so wanted to somehow angle into his book.

In defense of the good things, the final third of the book wasn’t a total disaster.  There was a section on the modern challenges with cholera, which are exacerbated by the rising number of squatters: a billion today, with the possibility that by 2030, a quarter of world’s population will live in unplanned squatter settlements.  I was saddened to learn that primarily due to these settlements, 1.1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and almost three billion (almost half the world’s population) are without basic sanitation elements such as toilets and sewers.

I cautiously recommend this one.  Johnson is a fairly vivid narrative writer, and that makes the story a gripping one.  Due to the editing issues, the book takes an interest in the subject sufficient to overcome the pacing and foibles that result.  Readers will need to realize too, that the last third of the book takes a dramatic swing in tone and regrettably often in topic.

Some favorite quotes:

“The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps.  But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudice, carry their own mystery as well.  How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time?  How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence evidence that contradicted their most basic theories?”

“Families continue to perish together in the developed world, of course, but such catastrophes usually unfold over the space of seconds or minutes, in car accidents, and plane crashes or natural disasters.  But a family dying together, slowly, agonizingly, with full awareness of their fate--that is a supremely dark chapter in the book of death.” 

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