March 2020

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

the front of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson against a background of old red brick and grassIf you’re the type of person who is into true crime documentaries or procedural/detective TV shows, then The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson is the book for you. This book is part history lesson and part step-by-step breakdown and tracking of the cholera epidemic that hit London in 1854, which killed about 700 people within a 250-foot radius in less than 2 weeks. Johnson doesn’t begin the book by dropping us right into the onset of the outbreak. Rather, he starts by vividly describing all of the jobs and people that were required to maintain Victorian London’s version of a waste management/recycling system. You begin to get a sense of the precarious balance that was present during this time between the booming population growth and the resulting waste removal problem. As with any economy, when there is a need for a service, especially when it’s an undesirable one, the cost of that service goes up and people decide to find a way to get around the need for it. In the case of London, their solution to the ever-increasing accumulation and removal of human waste was to just dump it into the river. Most of us as modern readers can easily predict how this would not end well, but as Johnson details in this book, there were many beliefs in place during the 1850s that prevented this realization and inevitably led to the cholera outbreak.

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