978-1-59448-925-9 / 9781594489259

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World


Publisher:Riverhead Hardcover



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About the book:

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

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