Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Our culture seems to currently be under the sway of a morbid fascination with dystopia in general. This sometimes manifests as a fascination in all things zombie or in other cases as an acute panic that every cough is a sign of Ebola in our midst. Johnson's book in equal parts satisfies that fascination while also acting as a bit of antidote for the panic it can bring.
The eerie imagery of Victorian London's scavengers wading through the sewers and rivers, moving the streets and alleys after dark, sets the stage for the epidemic. Johnson walks readers through the dirty bust bustling streets of Soho, and describes in vivid detail how London had become primed for the coming devastation. There's something almost voyeuristic in his close personal accounting of the days leading up to epidemic. It felt as though I were traveling the streets of Victorian Soho myself, visiting the vendors, the pub, the church. The lives of the people who lived there are brought vividly to life. However, Johnson has a habit of abruptly shifting to a bird's eye view, describing the city of London as a living, breathing organism. This is likely meant to mirror the technique of the tales main players, who often are forced to switch between examination of the individual to broad patterns across the entire city.
Regardless of perspective though, Johnson does not shy away from the details of the epidemic. He describes in great detail the phases of cholera and the reality of the disease from those suffering from it. The only way cholera can be contracted is through ingesting the bacteria. Spoiler alert: this means that there is a thorough, and I mean extremely thorough, examination of waste management, or the lack thereof, in 1854. I cannot stress just how big a part of the book this is. If you have issues with the discussion of fecal matter, this is not the book for you.
The book has two central heroes, if it can be said to have any at all. John Snow is well known for his participation in ending the Broad Street epidemic, but the local assistant-curate of the area, Henry Whitehead, receives much less popular recognition. Snow brings a precise and scientific perspective to the table, while Whitehead possesses intimate knowledge of the area and the people as well as a strong and honest desire to find the truth for their benefit. Johnson follows a sort of triple narrative throughout the book, separately documenting the observations and movements of both Snow and Whitehead while also following the path of the plague. Early on, this method of switching perspectives felt somewhat disjointed, particularly because each is so different from the others, but it quickly came together in a more cohesive whole. Johnson is insistent that both men are responsible for London's eventual liberation from cholera and spends a good deal of time explaining why.
Honestly, The Ghost Ship isn't necessarily telling a new story. I'd heard of the Broad Street pump and John Snow before, but he does it with a critical eye for detail. I'd never heard of Whitehead or the London sewers or the miasma theorists. He doesn't tell it as a heroic tale, he tells it as a step by step analysis of how cholera works, how London came to the point where it was so susceptible to it, and finally how small group of people build a case against the prevailing wisdom of the day to explain just how cholera works. I mentioned earlier that, in my opinion, this book acts as a sort of antidote for current trends of fear towards disease and things, and I think this is why. There is no hype in this book, only dry observations of how it proceeds. While cholera is obviously the cause of the book, it is not the antagonist. The real villains were other people. People succumbing to fear and spreading rumor, people clinging to outdated understandings of illness, people refusing to see the benefits of public works and sanitation projects. It makes cholera real rather than some terrifying boogeyman of a disease. And Johnson provides and understanding of exactly how it was vanquished in London.
I really enjoyed reading it. Johnson used evidence very effectively to make his case, and used personal accounts to supplement the hard evidence with a softer human side. The book was thrilling, a little scary and quite educational. All in all, a great Halloween choice. My only complaint is that Johnson allowed the ending to spin out of control a bit. In the conclusion and epilogue, he left Snow, Whitehead and Broad Street behind almost completely and instead began to lecture on modern waste management systems and the lack thereof in the slums of developing nations. This is not to say that the information provided was not useful or educational. However, I had the distinct feeling that these chapters were a bit of a soapbox for Johnson that were shoe-horned in at the end. His continued attempts to connect these things back to the core of the book felt like flimsy excuses. It bothered me not because of the content, but because of the way it felt tacked on and disconnected from the rest of the book. It was an unfortunate way to end what otherwise was a gripping and entertaining story.
-Really enjoyable retelling of a popular story
-Utilizes evidence and personal accounts very effectively
-Examines Victorian London in a nontraditional way
-Practical discussion of disease is realistic and comforting
-I am now prepared to answer any trivia questions on Victorian waste management
-Ending is a disappointment, moves away from core subject matter and strays into soapbox territory of tangential modern issues.
-DO NOT read this if you are bothered by discussion of fecal matter or waste management. You won't enjoy it.
-Significance of waste management in urban areas
-Disease as a catalyst for social change
-Dangers of blind acceptance of traditional beliefs and understandings
-Influence of bias and preconceived notions
-Value of multiple perspectives in problem solving
You might like this if you're interested in: Victorian England, medical dramas, history, medicine and disease, historical politics, London, epidemiology
If you liked this, you may enjoy:
- Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
- Bleak House by Charles Dickens
- London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew
- Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth
- Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy for Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg
- The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
- Dirty Jobs (TV show)
- Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus by David Quammen