Friday, June 6, 2008

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson Recommended

Steven Johnson, author of a number of non-fiction books, recently (2006) published a new title, The Ghost Map. I enjoyed the book - actually more than that, I found many nuggets of really interesting information, numerous passages of distinctive insight and all written well.

The book itself is actually really more like two books. Three quarters is the story of the outbreak of cholera in London in 1854 and the seminal medical detective work that surrounded the investigation of the cause of the outbreak and the solution required to bring the spreading illness to a halt. Dr. John Snow was the thriving, self-made medical doctor and pioneer of anesthesia who independently and voluntarily investigated the potential sources of the outbreak, working off of the theory that the disease was waterborne, eventually collaborating with the local Anglican curate to make the case that the true source could be located at the Broad Street pump. As told in traditional histories, the simple solution was the removal of the pump handle.

As is often the case, the story has a lot more twists and turns than the apocryphal retellings. What is not always the case, is that the real story is even more interesting than the apocryphal one, at least in the hands of Steven Johnson.

The other quarter of the story is really more of an extended essay building on the implications of the origins, spread and containment of contagion in cities as exemplified by the 1854 cholera outbreak. While interesting, this is almost an anticlimax and might have been better as a stand-alone essay.

All-in-all though, I particularly enjoyed this book. It has the same compelling pacing of such great historical narratives as The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, Isaacs Storm by Eric Larson and Walter Lord's various books.

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