On Immunity: An Inoculation Hardcover – Sep 30 2014
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“Subtle, spellbinding. . . . Sontag said she wrote Illness as Metaphor to 'calm the imagination, not to incite it,' and On Immunity also seeks to cool and console. But where Sontag was imperious, Biss is stealthy. She advances from all sides, like a chess player, drawing on science, myth, literature to herd us to the only logical end, to vaccinate.” ―Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review
“On Immunity casts a spell. . . . There's drama in watching this smart writer feel her way through this material. She's a poet, an essayist and a class spy. She digs honestly into her own psyche and into those of 'people like me,' and she reveals herself as believer and apostate, moth and flame.” ―Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Deftly interweaving personal history, cultural analysis, science journalism, and literary criticism, On Immunity investigates vaccinations from many angles--as the mechanism that protects us from disease, a metaphor for our wish for invulnerability, and a class-based privilege. . . . [Biss] has been compared to Joan Didion, and the reasons are obvious here. Like Didion she has a gift for coming at her subjects from all sides, in unsentimental, lyrical prose.” ―Meghan O'Rourke, Bookforum
“A welcome antidote--or ‘inoculation,' as the subtitle suggests--against the toxic shouting match occurring between ‘anti-vaxxers' and their opponents. . . . Biss leaps nimbly through a vertiginous range of subjects. . . . Brilliant and entertaining.” ―The Boston Globe
“Fascinating. . . . Biss can turn practically anything into a metaphor for immunity: Bram Stoker's Dracula, the Occupy Wall Street movement, immigration policy, Greek mythology. . . . By exploring the anxieties about what's lurking inside our flu shots, the air, and ourselves, she drives home the message that we are all responsible for one another. On Immunity will make you consider that idea on a fairly profound level.” ―Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A
“Elegant and bracing. . . . Biss approaches the [essay] form with the sensibility of a poet. . . . On Immunity is remarkable for its scope. Biss's reading of the political dimensions of vaccination, on the ways in which one's own health and sickness are contingent on that of others, is particularly thoughtful and penetrating.” ―Slate
“[An] elegant, intelligent and very beautiful book, which occupies a space between research and reflection, investigating our attitudes toward immunity and inoculation through a personal and cultural lens.” ―Los Angeles Times
“Biss's gracious rhetoric and her insistence that she feels 'uncomfortable with both sides' of the rancorous fight may frustrate readers looking for a pro-vaccine polemic. Yet her approach might actually be more likely to sway fearful parents, offering them an alternative set of images and associations to use in thinking about immunization. . . . Compelling. . . . This is writing designed to conquer anxiety.” ―The New Yorker
“Biss ably tracks the progress of immunization. . . . Biss also administers a thoughtful, withering critique to more recent fears of vaccines--the toxins they carry, from mercury to formaldehyde, and accusations of their role in causing autism. The author keeps the debate lively and surprising, touching on Rachel Carson here and ‘Dr. Bob' there. She also includes her father's wise counsel, which accommodates the many sides of the topic but arrives at a clear point of view: Vaccinate. Brightly informative, giving readers a sturdy platform from which to conduct their own research and take personal responsibility.” ―Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“[A] far-reaching and unusual investigation into immunity. . . . Artfully mixing motherhood, myth, maladies, and metaphors into her presentation, Biss transcends medical science and trepidation.” ―Booklist, starred review
“A thoughtful and probing analysis of the cultural myths surrounding vaccination. Biss mines within herself and within her community to understand how and why such myths gain traction in society.” ―Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, author of What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine
About the Author
Eula Biss is the author of Notes from No Man's Land, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and The Balloonists. Her essays have appeared in the Believer and Harper's Magazine. She teaches at Northwestern University and lives in Chicago, Illinois.
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Drawing from folklore, epidemiology, politics, studies on mercury and autism and her own encounters with parents opposed to vaccination, Biss concludes that myths and stigma shape our fears: "when we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs… we tend to doubt the information, not ourselves." Thus, she deftly addresses not only the infections caused by viruses but also those caused by ideas.
Biss emerges as a vigorous advocate for inoculation. She exposes the windy rhetoric of the anti-vaccination movement but also understands the fear at its heart, a fear that causes us to lose sight of human interdependence. After all, vaccinating only a part of the population will not arrest an epidemic; individual intentions feed a larger whole proving that we are inextricably linked.
The most harrowing parts of "On Immunity" describes what happens when we ignore this link: the unvaccinated child who returned from Switzerland with a case of the measles that infected eleven other children, a campaign in Nigeria to suspend polio inoculations based on the belief that Western powers adulterated them with AIDS-causing viruses. We pride ourselves on rationality but allow suppositions to govern us. We believe not the truth but that which we WISH was true.
Poignantly, Biss asks, what can we really be sure of? The answer is nothing. And so "On Immunity" ultimately reads as a set of questions about how we frame our interactions with the world. With all we do not and cannot know, what will we do with our fear?
Read 'Spillover' by David Quammen instead.