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- Published on Amazon.com
"A low-grade headache, right at the line of my eyes. And a scratchy throat." I whine to my mother on the other end of the line. Throughout Gregg Mitman's Breathing Space: How allergies shape our lives and landscapes, I scoffed the physical weakness of hay fever suffering elitists turned scientists or entrepreneurs or druggists. That is, until today when I was reminded of my own allergy to the mitigated air quality of my town, which is not unlike any other town in the United States: it borders a more "wild" area, is gridded with Bermuda and Kentucky grasses, and finds financial support in a sundry of industries. This town has housing projects and climate-controlled offices and immigrants, both herb and hominid, all ordinary places and spaces and people which Mitman unveils as somehow marginalized by a drive to eradicate that which ails us: allergens.
Though he blows plot secrets in the introduction, Mitman's surprises are in his prose and humor, despite the high stakes: that the "increased technological optimism [made] Americans confident in their ability to rid the landscape of allergy" also enabled the population to believe and to consume as if they could create a pristine, non-combative interior landscape, both in their homes and within the bounds of the body (7). These major themes are best played out in the chapters "On the Home Front," a history of the innovations to cleanse our personal and private spaces, "Choking Cities," a stab at the hypocrisy of American indifference to their own inner-city citizens' suffering while sending children from all over the world to high-cost, remote "scratch test centers," both bastions of relief and experiment. Though the theme of environmental justice runs like a nose throughout the book, beginning with a hilarious anecdote on a chain-wielding Mr. T, he takes a stronger critical look at the governmental institutions that enabled the architecture and bureaucracy of interior allergy than other texts in the field.
Mitman's ability to synthesize not only the complex political, economic, and social climates but the history of medicine and technology make this text useful for pre-med and post-medicated people alike. An undergraduate course might find specific chapters useful for grounding what is now the post-modern perspective: there is no outside. As an ecology student, I longed for more extensive histories on plants, production, and a kind of Pollanesque perspective, as well as denser chemical discussion in lieu of drawn out stories of obscure poets sniffling. Also, the rhetorical links of ragweed, also called "river-rat" and "slum dweller," to less-desirable human populations, as Peter Coates has made opaque, seemed under utilized (55). Still, Mitman's collection of images, affection for irony and overwhelming knowledge of medicine legitimate this book as a supporter of what is most important: "the evolving relationship of body and place" (250).
So change your AC filters, pop a non-drowsy Claritin (though you won't need the pseudoephedrine) and settle into your microbial, pollen, lice, mite, cockroach, dander, mystery-free world for a read that will have you wondering if it is even possible.