Tuesday, January 30, 2007

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

The Basics: The Ghost Map - The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, Steven Johnson, 2006, 299 pages, hardcover

How I found it: Greg gave me this book for Christmas, likely because I am a big cartography fan. In fact, this map comes up in almost every single cartography text ever written.

What's it about?: An explanation of the history behind the ghost map and how it helped solve a cholera epidemic in 1850s London. Johnson goes into the involvement of Dr. John Snow, who was investigating the disease, and Reverend Henry Whitehead, the head of the parish affected by the outbreak. He also explores the broader social context of city planning and waste disposal that contributed to the epidemic.

Did I like it?: This book is sort of a detective story that is solved by making a map, so I liked that aspect of it. But I'm not an epidemiologist so a lot of the stuff that Johnson discusses was not that interesting to me. In particular, Johnson spends the whole closing section of the book comparing the cholera epidemic to the contemporary threat of terrorism and bio-terrorism, and I found that portion a little irrelevant. Johnson's style of writing is fairly informative, but at times I found it a little dry. The endless discussions of sewer construction, etc. were a bit much. I think this book could have been 50 to 100 pages shorter.

Will you like it?: If you've ever wondered about the origins of the 'Ghost Map' and want the full story, this is a good read. I suppose if you are into epidemiology you might like it as well. Otherwise, it's not that exciting.

But don't take my word for it: The usual collection of reviews and book info from Amazon.ca, a reader review from Amazon, one from abstractdynamics.org, another from kottke.org, and one from treehugger.

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