The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might say that if a microbe could talk, we couldn't understand it, but psychoanalyst and science writer Arno Karlen has done his best to listen and translate in Biography of a Germ. This lovely, funny, even endearing portrait of Borrelia burgdorferi (or Bb), the screwy bacterium that causes Lyme disease, would charm even a terminal mysophobe like Howard Hughes. Unfortunately, Karlen has to justify his topic at greater length than do most biographers, but his reasoning is nearly lyrical in its enthusiasm for the microscopic. Following the genealogy of the germ back to our common ancestor (gulp) and beyond, the author finds a freshness in what we too often see as dry taxonomy and genetics. From there, he watches Bb as it makes its way through the circulation superhighways of deer, ticks, and hikers, each a stop on its complex life cycle.
We elbowed our way into Bb's story comparatively recently, ironically hurting ourselves as we renewed our appreciation of and commitment to wilderness areas. As we destroyed, then created habitat for deer, we ended up inviting Bb to run amok in our bodies. Karlen captures the beauty and terror of this bizarre chain of events, providing new insights into our relationship with our environment. Much like its cousins that live harmlessly in our bloodstream, eyelashes, and guts, this tickborne germ will eventually evolve a truce with us to protect its reproduction. Unfortunately for current and future sufferers of Lyme disease, we're quite a few generations away from that happy time. While we're waiting, we can read Biography of a Germ to learn more about our new tenants and why we should care about them. --Rob Lightner