three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
user_rating: 
0

The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

A-The Ghost MapA cholera outbreak in mid 19th-century London claimed more than 700 lives in 10 days. Without modern medicine, popular opinion claimed "miasma," the stench from the area’s many offending offal piles, as the root cause. Dr. John Snow was one of the driving forces behind the correct identification of the disease’s source, a community well. Henry Whitehead, a local clergyman who visited neighborhood homes and gathered information that would be crucial to Snow, aided him. The result was a new era in scientific understanding of the origin and prevention of disease. According to Johnson, the "ghost map," Snow’s detailed plotting of the pathology of the 1854 outbreak, has implications for the way we live today.
Riverhead. 320 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 1594489254

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"With this, his fifth nonfiction book, Johnson adds a new and welcome element—old-fashioned storytelling flair, another form of street knowledge—to his fractal, multi-faceted method of unraveling the scientific mysteries of everyday life." Mark Coleman

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"The London cholera epidemic of 1854 may be the primary subject of Steven Johnson’s thought-provoking The Ghost Map, but it’s the many secondary subjects that make it such an engaging read." Thomas Mullen

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"This is a marvelous little book, based to a large extent on the essays delivered to an academic colloquium, just as was Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1996). Yet The Ghost Map is a far more ambitious and compelling work." Ferdinand Mount

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Ghost Map is a tightly written account until the last 40 pages, which attempt to connect this story to trends and events all the way up to the Iraq war. Overwhelmed by the story he has written, the author attempts to connect it to too many things. Other than that, it is a masterpiece of historical writing." Bruce Ramsey

San Diego Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"[Johnson’s] readers will recognize a reworking on his favorite themes: the interface of culture and technology; the phenomenon of emergence (the bottom-up organization of small interconnected elements into more complex systems); and always, like a constant bass line in Johnson’s extended riff, the theme of urbanism. … [But] Johnson needs a Henry Whitehead, someone to infuse those theories with the warm breath of lived human experience." Judy Goldstein Botello

New York Sun 2 of 5 Stars
"The book, assembled from numerous secondary sources, is at its best in re-reporting the facts first set down by Victorian writers. … In fact, the idea for this book is so good that Mr. Johnson’s inept, tone-deaf prose and insensitivity to the historical context is all the more disappointing." William Bryk

Critical Summary

In books such as Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson neatly draws connections between seemingly unconnected aspects of life—think of James Burke in the digital age. The Ghost Map is no different in applying a 21st-century sensibility to a 19th-century cholera epidemic. According to critics, Johnson makes a single tactical error in the last pages, where he attempts to link the events he describes to too many other contemporary historical trends while ignoring some real-world realities. Regardless, the story is in capable hands, and the lives of individuals and a culture on the cusp of technological and medical advance resonates with readers 150 years later.

Compared to

Longitude The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time | Dava Sobel (1996): For centuries, people searched for a method to determine longitude at sea. Eighteenth-century clockmaker John Harrison finally solved the problem, but died without due glory.