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The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World [Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged] [MP3 CD]

Steven Johnson , Alan Sklar
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Dec 1 2006
A thrilling historical account of the worst cholera outbreak in Victorian London-and a brilliant exploration of how Dr. John Snow's solution revolutionized the way we think about disease, cities, science, and the modern world.

From the dynamic thinker routinely compared to Malcolm Gladwell, E. O. Wilson, and James Gleick, The Ghost Map is a riveting page-turner with a real-life historical hero that brilliantly illuminates the intertwined histories of the spread of viruses, rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry. These are topics that have long obsessed Steven Johnson, and The Ghost Map is a true triumph of the kind of multidisciplinary thinking for which he's become famous-a book that, like the work of Jared Diamond, presents both vivid history and a powerful and provocative explanation of what it means for the world we live in.

The Ghost Map takes place in the summer of 1854. A devastating cholera outbreak seizes London just as it is emerging as a modern city: more than 2 million people packed into a ten-mile circumference, a hub of travel and commerce, teeming with people from all over the world, continually pushing the limits of infrastructure that's outdated as soon as it's updated. Dr. John Snow-whose ideas about contagion had been dismissed by the scientific community-is spurred to intense action when the people in his neighborhood begin dying. With enthralling suspense, Johnson chronicles Snow's day-by-day efforts, as he risks his own life to prove how the epidemic is being spread.

When he creates the map that traces the pattern of outbreak back to its source, Dr. Snow didn't just solve the most pressing medical riddle of his time. He ultimately established a precedent for the way modern city-dwellers, city planners, physicians, and public officials think about the spread of disease and the development of the modern urban environment.

The Ghost Map is an endlessly compelling and utterly gripping account of that London summer of 1854, from the microbial level to the macrourban-theory level-including, most important, the human level.


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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.

His work as biographer also impresses. Johnson gives us two protagonists all but forgotten by history who really should be feted: Dr. John Snow, who 150 years ago in an era of superstition and tenaciously held scientific notions, managed to work out the simple equation that excrement + drinking water = death. We also meet Reverend Henry Whitehead who similarly helped to crack the cholera riddle by flat-footing it through Soho, interviewing residents and survivors and eventually coming to believe that Snow was onto something with his water-borne disease theory. (The prevailing wisdom of the day held that disease was airborne and linked to smell).

It is no exaggeration to say that Snow's efforts changed the world. Ditto engineer Joseph Bazalgette, whose sprawling, visionary English sewer system Johnson likens in stature and scope to the Eiffel Tower and Brooklyn Bridge. The Ghost Map is a great, great book, stuffed with cool factoids and told by a writer so conversant in his topic that it plays like an exquisite yarn shared over friendly beers. --Kim Hughes --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breaking the paradigm Jan. 15 2008
By Len TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
The story follows the cholera epidemic in the Soho district of London during the summer of 1854 which originated in a well on Broad Street. We know this through the investigations of two men, John Snow, a medical doctor and Henry Whitehead, a clergyman at the local church. If it was up to the members of the local health board, the story of the spread of cholera and the origin of the Broad Street epidemic would have been very different. It would have come from those noxious fumes created by an -overabundance of fecal matter, otherwise known as miasma, produced by people living within a densely populated area without the advantage of a proper sewage system. Yet, these two men fought against the collective will of the so-called experts to produce evidence that would forever change our understanding of how cholera is spread and in so doing, save the lives of thousands of their fellow citizenry. John Snow was sure that cholera was spread by water. Henry Whitehead was able to trace the origin of the contaminated water that caused the Broad Street epidemic because he knew the area and his congregation far better than Dr. Snow ever could. Mr. Johnson draws parallels between the cooperative effort of these two men and the realities of today where experts and citizenry work together to find solutions to problems that would otherwise be outside the capacity of any one individual.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very engaging and interesting read May 8 2010
By Vince
Format:Hardcover
I thoroughly enjoyed The Ghost Map and I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in medicine, infectious disease, history, or urbanization. In fact, it has excellent pacing and makes for an interesting "whodunnit" mystery-esque read even if those particular areas do not pique your interest. I had read about John Snow and the Broad Street pump before (in various epidemiology and community health textbooks) but Johnson's book provided a truly engaging and fascinating look into this seminal historical event that kept me turning the pages. Johnson introduces a number of very interesting characters central to the cholera outbreak and investigation and seamlessly takes the reader through the events of a few days in London with those characters. Overall, it is a well-researched, well-written book.

One of Johnson's greatest strengths is that he never lets the reader forget that this story took place in 1854 in one of the first metropolis' of the time - London. At several points throughout the book, it could have been easy to dismiss some of the various individuals in the narrative as crazy, stubborn, or simply stupid. Every time I found myself slipping towards those thoughts, however, Johnson would remind me of the historical context in which all of this was occurring. He does a wonderful job of contextualizing and grounding the historical account in the world of 1854 London.

My only critique of the book is that the epilogue moved slightly off topic and came across as much more hastily written and less well-researched than the rest of the book. Johnson seems to use the epilogue as a means to advance a few of his own personal ideas on urbanization, information-sharing, and terrorism that the historical narrative simply does not support very well.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book, but repetitive Jan. 2 2012
By Buyer
Format:Paperback
I thought this was a great book, and was well researched. It provided deep insight into Dr. Snow's research on the Cholera epidemics of London, but I found it to be quite repetitive. The last 2 chapters or so are basically reiterations of what was already said and I found myself skipping many pages in this last section. Otherwise, a great read for any epidemiologist, scientist, or anyone interested in public health or history.
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Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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 spread and, interestingly, who didn't become ill and why. Interesting book in these times of Ebola in Africa and possibly spreading to the rest of the world.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Ghost Map July 1 2009
Format:Paperback
Historical non-fiction that reads like a novel. A page-turner that will appeal to anyone who is interested in epidemiology and/or urban studies and anyone who enjoyed medical suspense novels such as "Outbreak".
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent May 18 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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 book provided some additional information..
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Ghost Map...hopeful April 18 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I found this book to be most interesting. I learned a great deal about the development of safe cities. I am amazed at how, only 160 years ago, the London sewers were built to solve the problem of clean drinking water in an urban centre...certainly one of the great achievements of the 19th century. I worry not that with our dwindling resources and the lack of support for science we will not be able to punter the threats that plague us.
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