In his latest book, The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You) examines a 10-day cholera plague in London in the late summer of 1854 to demonstrate, among other things, how science progresses through close observation and collaboration and how cities grow and protect themselves. Prior to its publication, Johnson described The Ghost Map to BookPage as almost like a medical thriller with a lot of big ideas wrapped around it. That remains a fair description.
The cholera outbreak, it would later be discovered, was caused by tainted water from a public well on Soho's crowded Broad Street. At the time, however, the prevailing scientific opinion was that such diseases originated from miasma foul air. It remained for an inquisitive physician, John Snow, a demographer, William Farr, and a clergyman, Henry Whitehead all working independently at the beginning to collect and apply the data that would reveal the source of the epidemic. The ghost map of the title refers to an increasingly detailed series of maps of the affected neighborhood that Snow drew to show precisely where people had died from cholera, in what numbers and what theirpatterns of activity were. In telling his stories, Johnson also relates how matters of health escalated from being a private matter to a public concern. On the most dramatic level, Johnson gives us a day-to-day story of a community in crisis, of babies dying and entire families being decimated while public officials try to head off even greater calamities. More substantially, though, he portrays London not just as a political and geographical entity but also as a living organism that must nourish and renew itself to survive. He enlivens what might have been dry-as-dust science reporting with vividly drawn characters and copious literary references. Better still, he allows his own enthusiasm for such flashes of human ingenuity to shine through. Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.