Thursday, February 4, 2010

Great heap of turds

OK, now that you have that lovely image (courtesy of Samuel Pepys' diary, October 20, 1660) in your mind, I'll move on to cholera (because they are related and the quote's from the book). Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map is my library's Everybody Reads 2010 selection, and -- as I'm not a speedy nonfiction reader -- I decided to listen instead. This book, subtitled The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, introduced me to a 19th century British doctor named John Snow.

Ahead of his time, Snow believed that cholera -- a disease that originated in Asia but made its way to Europe and the Americas as international trade developed -- was transmitted not by foul, odiferous air but by something that made its way into your digestive system. This seems logical to us, since the disease manifests itself by vomiting and diarrhea, but most scientists and doctors believed that London's polluted air and the general filth in which its poor lived were responsible. (Johnson calls these people miasmatists.) But when a particularly virulent outbreak occurred in late August/early September 1854 practically on Snow's doorstep, the doctor took the opportunity to prove his theory. As part of his proof, he created the eponymous map, demonstrating how the water from the contaminated Broad Street pump was drunk by everyone who died from cholera in the first few weeks of September.

Among the many interesting things I learned from this book was that the city of London had actually begun to deal with the problem of an ever-increasing human population and its waste products. But that the solution -- dumping it into the Thames River -- was more dangerous than the excrement itself. Humans know not to eat our own filth, but we will if we don't know when that filth ends up in our water supply. It took another 10 years (and The Great Stink) before a sewer system (considered a marvel of 19th century engineering) sent the waste far enough away so that the Thames recovered its (relatively) pristine state. Alas, Dr. Snow did not live to see his views generally adopted, but at least they named a pub after him!

The Ghost Map is read by Alan Sklar, a narrator I've not encountered before (he appears to only read adult titles). I found him to be a bit too low-key to consistently sustain my interest in this story. There were lengthy passages (not to mention a disc-long epilogue singing the praises of urban living) on miasmatism and other topics where I occasionally tuned out. Sklar's neutral, dispassionate reading just got to be a little dull. My expectations were a bit skewed, though. Based on the title and the setting, I thought I was in for a more riveting story narrated with more dramatic interpretation by someone with an English accent. Oh well. They'll be plenty of opportunities for those.

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