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The Ghost Map: The Story of London's…

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and… (original 2006; edition 2007)

by Steven Johnson

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2,8881542,002 (3.94)2 / 254
Title:The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Authors:Steven Johnson
Info:Riverhead Trade (2007), Edition: 1 Reprint, Paperback, 320 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson (2006)

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THE GHOST MAP is about the terrible Broad Street cholera epidemic in London in 1854. The epidemic claimed over six hundred lives, but also sparked an investigation that led to the foundations of the science of epidemiology and underscored the importance of proper sanitation and public health. We follow two investigators – local doctor John Snow, who had been looking for more data on cholera for a long time, and young assistant curate Henry Whitehead, who was increasingly concerned about his parishioners being decimated. Whitehead’s local knowledge and Snow’s methodical nature and medical skills combined helped prove that cholera was spread via contaminated water, rather than the ineffable “miasma” that was the prevailing theory of the time.

This book was well-written and well-researched, but I was far more compelled by the first half of the book. The author plops you down in the sights, smells, and sounds of Victorian London as he sets the stage for the start of the epidemic, and it’s pretty amazing. You really get a sense of what it was like for the residents of Broad Street, much of it is familiar, and the unfamiliar parts are explained with full context. However, once the investigation gets underway, it felt like there wasn’t a full book length of material there, and the author was trying to stretch it in creative ways. He talks up the opposing viewpoints of Whitehead and Snow, but there’s no drama there – Snow had the evidence, and Whitehead was convinced by it. Some of the later material also seemed a little repetitive. And occasionally the author goes on tangents where he draws conclusions that didn’t really matter to the narrative, but worse, didn’t seem backed up by anything (I checked the citations) – one example being alcoholism as an evolutionary predilection for some races of people.

The conclusion of the book was also somewhat weak, there was a bunch of tangential stuff about the various things maps are useful for, and the connection to the cholera outbreak map was extremely tenuous. The author also takes the opportunity to advocate strongly for his belief that humans should be striving for urbanization, which also didn’t seem connected to the rest of the book other than the fact that London is a city.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for its engaging portrayal of what it was like to live in 1854 London and to learn more about how humanity started making meaningful progress into investigating and managing epidemics. It’s definitely a popular non-fiction book though, and prioritizes shock value over thoroughness. ( )
  kgodey | Apr 11, 2017 |
A quick and interesting read. It fit in well with "The Big Necessity" which I also read this year. ( )
  kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
Beautifully written, well-researched, and has something to say. Thought-provoking. Highly recommended. Even better than The Invention of Air by the same author, but I recommend that one, too. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
I was disappointed by this. Partly because I don't think it lived up to its hype, but mostly because I think Johnson had about 75 pages of material, and he really had to work hard to stretch it into a full book.

The book is about a horrible cholera outbreak in Victorian London, and a doctor who investigated the source of the outbreak and discovered that it was a contaminated well. The conventional wisdom at the time was that diseases spread in the air, so this particular outbreak and the fact that it was proven to come from contaminated water marked a major turning point in our understanding of disease and the need for clean water.

The story is fascinating, and the information is well-researched. However, the book is really bad at setting up reader expectations and then not meeting them.

For instance, the titular Ghost Map isn't even mentioned until the very final chapter, and then it turns out the map was an after-the-fact thing that played a very small role in the actual events. Johnson also does a lot to build up the door-to-door investigations done at the time, but then says very little about the actual process of investigation. Kudos to him for not making up information he doesn't have, but it was disappointing that he didn't have that information after playing it up to be so important.

That's not to say I regret reading the book (although I did skim some of the very long tangents about urbanization and environmentalism) - there was lots of really interesting information here. I just wish it had been more focused. ( )
  Gwendydd | Sep 30, 2016 |
I didn't think I would enjoy a book that started about how people used to get rid of their poop, but I did. I'm honestly not sure what to think of the dramatic way Johnson tells this story. On the one hand, it's what kept me turning pages all day yesterday until I finished the book. But on the other hand, it's a little unbelievable the way he enters the minds of John Snow and Whitehead. Overall, it was a pretty fascinating book. ( )
2 vote captainmander | May 11, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 139 (next | show all)
To nonfiction book writers: if you want your book to sell, make huge, dramatic claims with your title and/or subtitle. If you want your book to be a bestseller, you actually have to fulfill those claims. Steven Johnson has done both, again and again.

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Steven Johnsonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gibson, BenjaminCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sklar, AlanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"A Klee painting named 'Angelus Novus' shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistably propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
—Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History"
For the women in my life:

My mother and sisters, for their amazing work
on the front lines of public health

Alexa, for the gift of Henry Whitehead

and Mame, for introducing me to London so many years ago . . .
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It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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From Amazon: 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 of the spread of disease, 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.
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An account of the worst cholera outbreak in Victorian London--and an exploration of how Dr. John Snow's solution revolutionized the way we think about disease in cities. In the summer of 1854, a devastating cholera outbreak seized London just as it was emerging as a modern city. Author Johnson chronicles Snow's day-by-day efforts as he risked his own life to prove how the epidemic was being spread. When he created the map that traced the pattern of outbreak back to its source, Dr. Snow didn't just solve a pressing medical riddle--he established a precedent for the way modern city-dwellers, city planners, physicians, and public officials think about the spread of disease and the development of the modern urban environment.--From publisher description.… (more)

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