The Ghost Map

Author: Steven Johnson
Published: 2006
Website: Book Website

The Ghost Map is like a better version of Cities, a nonfictional version of The Cry and the Covenant and an excellent piece in its own right. It tells the story of the 1853-4 cholera epidemic which ravaged London, taking thousands of lives. The book aims to be many things, and does an impressive job of raveling the threads of cause and influence that inform the contemporary and modern understandings of the event. In its medical thriller moments, there is a great deal about the bacterium itself, the way that Vibrio cholerae infects its victims, lodges in their intestines and kills them in a matter of hours or days. Johnson is quite capable of explaining the infestation of waterways in layperson’s terms, which makes the science which is clearly very important to the author palatable for all readers. At times the discussion of evolution becomes a little long-winded, although I have a science background, so that isn’t exactly fair. The sociological analysis is also fascinating; the ways in which people in London interacted with each other and their water supplies, how the sewers and sewer systems were built and the underlying political infrastructure of it all.

Best of all, the book also recounts various efforts to combat the disease, through the lenses of John Snow, an anesthesiologist and amateur sociologist/epidemiologist, Father Whitehead, a priest, and various other individuals who tipped the balance against the epidemic. Their stories make for reading exciting as if it were fiction, with detectives and heroes, science and empirical evidence. A certain kind of fiction, anyway. The villains are political inertia, those damn miasmas and the general difficulty of locating the exact cause of a hitherto poorly studied disease. Nonetheless, Snow, Whitehead and their compatriots were successful.

That victory is also part of the book, because Johnson engages in a great deal of meta-analysis that, while occasionally verging on preachy, does indeed provide a useful and inspiring framework in which to put the story. As Johnson tells it, the eradication of cholera in London is also the vindication of urbanism, of human ingenuity, and of science, that humans can solve not only the problems that nature throws at them from the outside, but also those they create for themselves through, for example, extreme population density. In the epilogue, he writes these conflicts large, bringing in global terrorism, bioterrorism, world cities and creationism. It can feel a bit tangential, but the main thrust is both clear and prudent: the changing human landscape will induce perhaps as many problems as it defeats, and there will always be a need for more understanding and more forward looking visionaries.

P.S. The picture is Snow’s map of the Cholera outbreak. Take a look. Notice the clumping. Hint: Broad Street had a well.

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