Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson's Ghost Map was brilliant while it focused on the heart of its story: the unlikely collaboration between Dr. John Snow and the Reverend Henry Whitehead in combating London's recurring cholera outbreaks in the mid-nineteenth century.

Johnson steps deftly between the science and the sociology of the era; he explores the prejudices of the city's leaders, the moralistic and pseudo-religious views undermining theories about the spread of disease, and the technological advances accompanying London's transformation from an Elizabethan city to a modern metropolis.

Snow and Whitehead are fascinating men. A little bit Sherlock Holmes and a little bit Tetrius Lydgate, each provides the elbow grease that spurs a revolution in how we think about disease that can look, in retrospect, like the nexus of progress and good luck. Johnson shows us the hard work Snow and Whitehead put into their search for the cause and cure for cholera, which was for each of them, a consuming and noble hobby.

I recommend that story whole-heartedly.

What I don't recommend, however, is Johnson's epilogue. Technical and repetitive, the epilogue lacks all of the grace of the main text. Worst, it's long. I listened to Ghost Map in the car on a recent trip, and the epilogue starts on the 6th disc and lasts the entire 7th disc. It's almost as though Johnson wrote Ghost Map for public consumption, to be read by laymen and students, like so many successful recent works of non-fiction (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks springs to mind). And then, knowing that more serious academics were likely to quote from his work, Johnson reitterated his thesis in every paragraph of his epilogue.

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