Nicole'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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's review
Feb 26, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: history
Read from February 24 to 26, 2011

I had heard about this book and was intrigued. Then a friend forcefully recommended it to me. Then I got sick, and thought, "What the heck. Why not read a book about cholera while I'm feeling under the weather?"

Note to others: don't read the first chapter or two of this book while you're eating. Really. Steven Johnson's prose is so effective that you'll feel like you're in mid-1800s London. You don't want to feel like you're in a city without a modern sewer system while you're eating, I assure you.

The Ghost Map could have been a deadly-dull list of names and dates. Instead, Johnson created a gripping thriller about a deadly disease stalking London. Along the way, he writes about the misguided views of the city's leaders, who thought the illness was caused by bad odors (termed "miasma") and the weak constitution of the poor (because, according to them, if they didn't have weak constitutions they wouldn't be poor). Even those who were fighting for the poor and underserved, such as Charles Dickens, had their misguided moments - and the way they were misguided then is extraordinarily relevant to today's political debates.

This book is fascinating on many levels. For the armchair historian, it's a great read on how London managed to avert collapse due to disease in the middle of explosive growth. For the person who romanticizes the Victorian era and thinks the problem with the modern world is that we're not all living like the early Victorians, this is a wake-up call as to the horrors of the era. If you're interested in disease, its transmission and its eradication, this is absolutely fascinating. If you like data and charting, and the ways that disparate data points can be brought together to prove a point, you've found your book.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go put every other book Steven Johnson ever wrote on my wish list.
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