Review of “The Ghost Map”
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. By Steven Johnson. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006. Print. Pp. xviii+302. $16.00.
This tightly-written triumph of historical nonfiction, written by Steven Johnson, author of seven other books including the national bestseller Everything Bad Is Good for You, follows two eminently prolific individuals––the taciturn yet brilliant Dr. John Snow, and the genial and equally perceptive Rev. Henry Whitehead––as their lives briefly intertwine when an unprecedentedly intense outbreak of cholera devastates a swathe of Victorian London. Johnson describes how, in the span of a few weeks during the summer and fall of 1854, these two tenacious men join forces to propose a pioneering solution to what then was medicine’s most befuddling conundrum: a waterborne theory of cholera. The implications of their explanation for cholera’s spread, though not immediately realized––Snow and Whitehead’s seminal achievement is recognized only shortly after the Great Stink of 1858, posthumously in Snow’s case––are unfavorable for the continued survival of the then-preponderant miasmatic theory of disease.
Their theory, besides at long last dispelling the dangers of cholera, dispels man’s notion of the city as being a form of “collective madness” (232), his fears that the great urban experiment which brought him such wealth and excitement will, in the end, be his undoing. It paves the way for an explosion of urbanization whose legacy is a “city-planet” (232) in which a definite majority of the human population (over 6 billion when Ghost Map first came to print) live in one of several thousand cities, the largest of which dwarf 19th century London. For their singular role in changing society’s outlook on cities, Johnson argues, Snow and Whitehead are unsurpassed trailblazers in the history of human development. I readily agree.
Johnson, a resident of New York City at the time of the September 11 attacks, concludes his tale by suggesting that the ever-growing prospect of urban terrorism, nuclear terrorism in particular, presents to cities around the world a hazard unlike any other, one that has no remedy. Even the deadliest bacterium can be contained by the strict application of science, but what is to stop a megaton hydrogen bomb from destroying and leaving uninhabitable everything within a two- or three-mile radius from the ground zero? Nothing, says Johnson, and therein lies his fear that the trend to urbanization shall be reversed in the 21st century. That being said, Johnson ends on an optimistic note, noting that the resignation which we now feel with regards to nuclear weapons is surely nothing compared to the utter despair Victorian Londoners must have felt as they were put down by an invisible and seemingly indiscriminate killer. Now, though the undeniable skill with which Johnson presents his opinions is appealing, I have deep reservations about his positivism. That cholera was once perceived to be incurable, erroneously as it obviously turned out, in no way suggests that the same can eventually be said of nuclear terrorism. Since we can only estimate the number of nuclear warheads manufactured, not to mention the amount of fissile material in circulation, we have no choice but to hope that no terrorist gets his/her hands on nuclear weapons. Under these inauspicious circumstances, the likelihood of a nuclear attack on a city is almost overwhelming. When one also considers that society’s malcontents are increasing in number, that likelihood becomes a certainty.
Ghost Map, whose title is derived from a famous map drawn by Snow on which “the ghosts of the Broad Street outbreak” (197) are distributed, seems less a critical treatise that seeks to draw new meaning from an already much-scrutinized event in recent medical history, and more a gripping thriller intended for popular consumption. With the exception of roughly two dozen pages at the tale’s conclusion, where Johnson briefly expounds on what he believes are the virtues of urbanization––a healthy citizenry, a complex and technologically advanced infrastructure, a robust economy, and, surprisingly enough, a stable population and green-friendly environment (his views here are most startling, since they contradict Malthusianism and environmentalism, respectively)––Johnson only rarely strays from his dramatized account of the fortnight-long Broad Street cholera outbreak. Indeed, Ghost Map reads like an investigative mystery, and given Johnson’s background in journalism and as a popular science writer, it seems almost unnecessary to remark on the fact that his concise and graceful prose, his use of effortless syntax and diction, is tailor-made for the layperson looking to advance his/her understanding of a subject that otherwise would be obscured by the passage of time and the complexity (not to mention the inaccessibility) of the source materials referenced in the book. In any case, I certainly enjoyed the book, and so, I believe, would most others.
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Copyright © 2014 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.