Review: The Ghost Map – Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

Publisher: Riverhead Books (October 19, 2006)

Print Length: 299 pages

Audiobook Length: 8 hrs and 38 mins

Narrator: Alan Sklar

From Steven Johnson, the dynamic thinker routinely compared to James Gleick, Dava Sobel, and Malcolm Gladwell, The Ghost Map is a riveting page-turner about a real-life historical hero, Dr. John Snow. It’s the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure — garbage removal, clean water, sewers — necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.

In a triumph of multidisciplinary thinking, Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories and interconnectedness of the spread of disease, contagion theory, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a riveting history and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in.

Review

While I originally picked up The Ghost Map thinking it was going to be about bubonic plague, I was surprised to learn that it was actually an overview about the Broad Street cholera outbreak of 1854.

I knew very little about the subject matter of cholera going into the book, and upon finishing it I feel that I have a general, albeit limited, understanding of an unhygienic time in London’s history. One of my critiques is that the book is just too short to get the whole picture of why cholera was able to flourish so rapidly. Yes, Johnson is able to touch on London’s growth spurt and the issues that arise with overcrowding, but I found myself craving more information in terms of why this overpopulation happened and how it plateaued.

The majority of the novel focuses on Dr. John Snow, because that wasn’t distracting, and Henry Whitehead. Both men’s involvement lead to the discovery that the outbreak was caused by a contaminated public water pump, showing the eventual progression that cholera is due to an infection and not due to miasma in the air.

All in all, if you are interested in seeing the progression of medical thinking during the 19th century, but also don’t want to invest too much time, then The Ghost Map is a book to check out.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Purchase Links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indigo

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And those are my thoughts on The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. Have any non-fiction recommendations you think I should check out? Leave them as a comment below and help my TBR grow.

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