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Booklog: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

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


Alan Sklar's narration is a little heavy, but adequate.

The first part of this book examines the process of scientific advance through the lens of an 1854 cholera outbreak in London. Johnson's research seems thorough and complete, and he does a good job of explaining relevant concepts and facts. From time to time he stirs in a narrative-style story of the outbreak and the two men who were studying it.

He uses this whole to discuss how science advances in fits and starts as new theories compete with old, established ones. I thought this part of the book was fascinating because I see the same process going on today. Johnson also does a good job of describing the role of chance in the story of the outbreak and its solution. (E.g., the solution would not have been found without the intervention both of a medical man trained in anesthesiology and of a clergyman who understood the neighborhood that was affected.)

Another of Johnson's themes is the nature of urban living and urban planning. He describes the patchwork of services, individual laborers, technological advances, and economic realities that made up London's inadequate refuse disposal solution, and explained how understanding the transmission of cholera led to the development of modern sewer systems.

The final third of the book is Johnson's ode to modern cities and human progress. It's not grounded in research the way the historical narrative was. I wasn't very impressed with it and didn't finish it.

In the part I did listen to, there is a lot of "gee whiz" about how the Internet will let you look up your nearest coffee shop and how dense urban living is good for the environment and for population control and for human interaction and progress. I have heard those ideas before and mostly agree with them, and he doesn't present anything new from my point of view, nor does he do a careful job of providing supporting evidence for his arguments.

He also goes on about how squatter cities are really where things are happening these days (apparently drawing on Robert Neuwirth's Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World). I don't know much about this but it seems he glosses over the infrastructure problems (and concomitant pollution problems) such cities have in order to talk about how they are cool because they have multi-story buildings and nightclubs and lots of (*ahem*) economic opportunities.

View all my (goodreads.com) reviews >>

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
7patches
Oct. 14th, 2009 03:09 am (UTC)
I read a book about a similar situation.
Author Anderson, Laurie Halse.
Title Fever, 1793
Philadelphia PA, Yellow Fever, through the eyes of a 16 year old girl.
There is no external analysis, but it does describe that certain neighborhoods were more vulnerable. There was a well organized relief effort by the African-American community.
tedesson
Oct. 15th, 2009 01:45 am (UTC)
I liked the line to the effect the first act of modern public sanitation was to poison most of the city of London.

He's got a lovely non-fiction style.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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