Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

In a way, it's amazing it took me this long to get to this book. My husband and one of my best friends had both read and really enjoyed it. It's about cholera in England, and I have that weird sort of interest that comes from having played a roleplaying game in which my teenage vampire slayer and her cohorts in the Royal Magisterial Corps were tracking a vampire who had been possessed by a cholera spirit. Plus, it's history.

Still, I felt a bit reticent to start it. The Devil and the White City was okay, but didn't really hang together. (I know it's by a different author. I'm not saying this was a logical reaction.) Mary Roach's books are popular science, not popular history, but I've gotten tired of how surface her books are, refusing to engage with complexity. And I'm a historian by training. Could I possibly enjoy this one?

Well, the answer ended up being yes, I could enjoy it quite a lot. Johnson is a much better writer, and manages to grapple with difficult issues accessibly. And, endearing him to me forever, he doesn't stop at "weren't people in the past silly?" that so much popular history falls prey to.

He actually does a very good job of looking at miasma theory, and instead of using that as a whip to lash the doctors of the past for being stupid, takes a look at why it was so widespread, why it was so powerful, and what was strange about the mavericks that let them look beyond it. That takes nuance, and I appreciated it a lot.

This book centres around a cholera outbreak in London, spread through a pump that had waste from the first victim seep into its source water. Poverty and cleanliness had no connection to who died and who lived, confounding the theory that the poor were just dirtier, if people had been able to see it.  One doctor, who had already had the theory that cholera might be waterborne, was able to track virtually every case to one pump that was known for having particularly pure water, and hence, used by some people outside the geographic district, who also came down with cholera.

He was challenged by many, including the medical establishment, but also by a minister who had been on the ground during the outbreak. The minister set out to prove him wrong, and ended up believing he was right. The two of them worked on the map that would, over time, come to prove the theory of how cholera was spread.

Johnson argues that it took both the ability to think outside the box and the individual knowledge of the streets, using the strengths of both men, to accomplish the task. He looks at who they were, their backgrounds, and their actions. It's all readable.

The epilogue is a bit long-winded. Johnson is passionately pro-urban, which is nice to see, in a world that still has a remarkable bit of 19th c. idealization of the pastoral hanging around it. He goes through what he sees as all the potential dangers to urban space and ways that where we are now might counteract them. It's interesting, but it's very long.

Overall, good popular history that embraces complexity instead of trying to make us laugh at those silly people in the past.

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