A random find in the library the other day was The Ghost Map, written by Steven Johnson, most well known recently for his book Everything Bad is Good for You, about which there was much comment (I am agnostic on the book itself though I’ll be danged if I have people telling me that watching a lot of TV is better than listening to a lot of music, say). My eye was caught more because it seemed to be the kind of popularized historical account made most famous in recent years by Erik Larson — you-are-there contextualized history done with an eye for narrative thrills via a judicious reworking of often dry accounts, focusing on big sweeping events and small observations in equal measure.
And to a large extent that is exactly what The Ghost Map is about, and the format it follows. As the subtitle explains, it’s meant to cover “the story of London’s most terrifying epidemic — and how it changed science, cities and the modern world” — very much a Larsonesque touch, at least on the part of Johnson’s publishers (as it stands, the body count of said epidemic doesn’t compare to other plagues the city had faced in the past, so there’s your hyperbole). Specifically the subject under discussion consists of an outbreak of cholera around the Broad Street area in late summer 1854, the isolation of its cause by a pioneering physician, John Snow, and the combination of scientific and engineering advances which enabled Snow’s theory of cholera being carried by a waterborne source to be generally accepted in future years, coinciding with and contributing to further advances in urban engineering design.
The elements familiar from Larson’s work are all apparent — case histories, individual details, mistaken figures caught in their own assumptions in face of increasing facts otherwise, scientific study presented in easily understood language, sad tragedies above all else (it’s no mistake that each of Larson’s books has early death at its core) — and Johnson’s take on the style, while by no means a cloning, can only be read through that lens. It differs in two key ways, though — first is a more ironic self-awareness about the lack of an easy narrative solution to depicting the course of the story (for example, Johnson undermines what has become a common myth about Snow’s work in this case — rather than turning all minds to realize the nature of cholera in an instant, his initial conclusions were rebuffed by all the incipient power structures of the medical field at the time).
The second is the more intriguingly telling — rather than ending on a simple note of “ain’t it great that we have working sewer systems now” (which is no bad note at all — the often horrifying details of how they worked or rather didn’t work can be stomach turning, and Johnson rightly notes that the human element in waste reuse continues to this day in plenty of cities worldwide), Johnson spends much of the final chapter instead using the case as a launching point for a new defense of urbanism in the 21st century, as environmentally conscious and understandably desirable for the vast majority of humanity. It’s an interesting argument, a little rushed, but no less enjoyable to read, and fully in line with his more famous earlier work — an upending of assumptions commonly held about what is the ‘right’ way to live (and as such, his celebration of Snow’s working against common orthodoxy about cholera — choosing to focus on a waterborne element instead of an airborne one — makes all the more sense in context). After a century’s worth of images of the modern city as inhuman mental and sometimes physical warzone, itself derived from centuries’ worth of portrayal of cities as stinking infestations and agglomerations of humanity, Johnson’s overt celebration of the possibilities of cities is refreshing — he quotes Jane Jacobs at many points, and it’s little surprise as to why. (At the same time, while he acknowledges that cities are hardly examples of perfection, he seems on the face of it to never fully acknowledge that he is writing from a position of relative privilege, the content urbanite holding down employment and raising a family in comfort if not luxury. Dare I say it, he is a classic ‘there ain’t no better place than this’ New Yorker in this regard, and his celebration of Jacobs makes perfect sense as a result.)
For myself, living in an area that is neither a full-on city center nor rural openness, I think there’s more to be said about the fringe than he allows for, that his ideal of compact but low-impact living, multiplicity of choices for cultural enjoyment and the possibilities of mass transit and ‘green’ living can be found in areas labeled as suburban rather than urban. I’m there, frankly, with my spot in Costa Mesa, and while there could be more to it than that, there could be a heck of a lot less. I’m more than content with my apartment, my bolthole from it all, and more than content with the possibilities in the immediate vicinity or which I don’t have to travel far to find on foot or on the bus. So his paean to the possibilities of the cities of the future and if they will still thrive — he is optimistic, despite well-considered points about environmental danger or biological threats, natural or manufactured — affects me less than his point in the core of the story, that those advances in engineering and science which allowed for the growth of large cities to start with, and which preserves their growth for the future still by allowing for options taken for granted in many places now.
If nothing else, The Ghost Map — the title itself referring to a series of maps done by Snow and others showing the death rates of the epidemic, and which fits into yet another exultant part of the conclusion regarding the future of personalized Internet maps detailing communities on a microscopic level (no surprise either than Johnson’s written for Wired, frankly) — reminds us that where we are at now is in part the result of deaths earlier, not natural ones, but truly horrifying ones instead. The details about how cholera kills are not for the faint of heart, and one of the most sad aspects is the fact that the mind remains fully active and aware even while the body is rapidly destroyed. Johnson, perhaps a bit too blithely, makes a point best kept in mind — there’s no reason why any of us won’t be future statistics of the prematurely dead in a future book or overview, and how what benefits generations down the road may be at the cost of what finishes many of us alive now in ways we haven’t yet begun to appreciate to fear.