Belarius's Reviews > The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
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Jan 26, 08

bookshelves: nonfiction-finished, reviewed
Recommended for: All People With Immune Systems
Read in December, 2007

The Ghost Map is among the most engaging pieces of nonfiction I've ever read: a real-life detective story in Victorian London with frighteningly high stakes. During the infancy of modern science, a brilliant doctor and a down-to-earth pastor would join forces and uncover the source of one of the 19th centuries most acute outbreaks of cholera. In doing so, they would effectively create the modern discipline of epidemiology and pioneer modern germ theory.

Author Steven Johnson approaches the task of selling this engaging narrative in much the same way Richard Preston did in The Hot Zone a dozen years earlier: introduce us to a few key figures (including, in this case, the character of Cholera) and present the context necessary to understand their brilliance and flaws. Then, draw lines between protagonists and antagonists and let the story unfold piece by piece, like a good thriller.

Johnson focuses keenly on the conflicts of the story (man vs. germ, poor vs. rich, tradition vs. underdog) and uses them to drive things continually forward. The book is a page turner precisely because the story is full of rivalries as well as twists and surprises. In so doing, he tells us a great deal about Victorian society, and the evolution of the modern city and modern city planning.

Along with Michael Crichton's Great Train Robbery, The Ghost Map is among the best nonfiction adventures set in Victorian London available on paper. Johnson tells a story with high stakes and lasting consequences in a way novelists should be envious of.
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