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Steven Johnson, bestselling author of Everything Bad is Good for You, is fantastically gifted, and anyone who doubts it need only consider this: in The Ghost Map, Johnson manages to make filth, overpopulation, feces and death the cornerstones of one of the year's snappiest page-turners. On the simplest level, The Ghost Map is the true-life tale of the cholera scourge that slammed London in 1854 and the two passionate and whip-smart men who ferreted out its cause. But it's also a biography, a detective saga, a horror story, a history lesson, a sociological rumination on cities, an unlikely but gripping celebration of the modern sewer system and a vivid portrait of historic London life.
"London's underground market of scavenging had its own system of rank and privilege, and near the top were the night-soil men," Johnson observes. "Like the beloved chimney sweeps of Mary Poppins, the night-soil men worked as independent contractors at the very edge of the legitimate economy, though their labor was significantly more revolting than the foraging of the mud-larks and toshers.
"City landlords hired the men to remove the "night soil" from the overflowing cesspools of their buildings. The collecting of human excrement was a venerable occupation; in medieval times they were called rakers. [But] the work conditions could be deadly: in 1326, an ill-fated laborer by the name of Richard the Raker fell into a cesspool and literally drowned in human shit."Nice. Clearly much more than just a dry recitation of data--though the depth of Johnson's research is obvious--The Ghost Map is a hair-raiser that cooks from page one. A big reason is Johnson's ability to personify and animate what he terms "the invisible kingdom of microscopic bacteria," transforming cholera into a nefarious three-dimensional villain with a role to play and zest for the part.
Starred Review. On August 28, 1854, working-class Londoner Sarah Lewis tossed a bucket of soiled water into the cesspool of her squalid apartment building and triggered the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the city's history. In this tightly written page-turner, Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You) uses his considerable skill to craft a story of suffering, perseverance and redemption that echoes to the present day. Describing a city and culture experiencing explosive growth, with its attendant promise and difficulty, Johnson builds the story around physician John Snow. In the face of a horrifying epidemic, Snow (pioneering developer of surgical anesthesia) posited the then radical theory that cholera was spread through contaminated water rather than through miasma, or smells in the air. Against considerable resistance from the medical and bureaucratic establishment, Snow persisted and, with hard work and groundbreaking research, helped to bring about a fundamental change in our understanding of disease and its spread. Johnson weaves in overlapping ideas about the growth of civilization, the organization of cities, and evolution to thrilling effect. From Snow's discovery of patient zero to Johnson's compelling argument for and celebration of cities, this makes for an illuminating and satisfying read. B&w illus. (Oct.)
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We need to be reminded that heroes walk among us in plain sight, yet unseen. The man who removed the Broad Street pump handle worked for years against social custom to establish a... Read morePublished 9 months ago by J Barry Gander
I loved this book which was as much a story about London during an epidemic. It has much detail - from the theory of the discovery of the first person who got the plague - how it... Read morePublished 12 months ago by Jen Holden
A vivid description of London cholera and the state of poverty in Britain in nineteenth century. I am writing a book on the effect of British rule on healthcare in India and the... Read morePublished 15 months ago by Daya Varma
I found this book to be most interesting. I learned a great deal about the development of safe cities. Read morePublished 16 months ago by A1teacher
The time of Victoria and Dickens, London's sky's are grey, the Thames a cesspool and in a tiny street in SOHO a baby dies. Read morePublished 19 months ago by Nan
The Ghost Map is a very readable book and I enjoyed the first half, which was actually about cholera in Victorian London. Read morePublished on Aug. 1 2012 by C. Brown