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Last week, I marveled, with the rest of the world as the Duchess of Sussex (Meghan Markle) shut her own car door. Tina didn’t finish Dear Mrs. Bird, but enjoyed Peter Mayle’s last book, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence. Heather reviewed a book about “British people behaving badly in Spain,” Costa del Churros. Sim shared the controversy buzzing around the upcoming film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, set in the Harry Potter world. Gaele reviewed The Perfect Fit, second in the Love in the Dales series.
Book: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication date: 2006
Source: hard copy from the library
Summary: London’s cholera epidemic of 1854 is not the most virulent or deadly that the world has known, but its significance marks a fundamental moment in public health, one that makes large cities possible. This was decades before microscopes were capable of spotting the bacteria in contaminated water samples. The prevailing theory was that cholera was spread through bad smells, miasma. Dr John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead used maps, logical thinking, and local knowledge to trace the origin of the Broad Street outbreak to one particular water pump.
If you live in a metropolitan area of more than a million (or benefit from the creative output that we generate — which means, every one), then you owe a debt to Victorian scientists and thinkers. Their work contributed to the infrastructure developments, like clean water supplies and functioning sewers, that allows humans to live closer together without spreading disease.
Thoughts: As you can see from my library copy of The Ghost Map, I marked lots of places with ideas that I wanted to consider again or share with you. I’m going to have to be selective or this post will be really long.
Much of the book focuses on how society gets things wrong and how hard it is to break through conventional thinking even when it’s demonstrably false. The belief that cholera was caused my miasma hampered the discovery that it’s a water-borne illness.
The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps. But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudice, carry their own mystery as well. How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These question, too, deserve their own discipline–the sociology of error. p. 13
The exploration of that topic kept making me think about how the questions get more interesting when we invite more people to ask them. Maybe society wouldn’t stick so long to incorrect theories if more voices were brought into the conversation. The women and children of the neighborhood had vital information, but they weren’t part of the dialogue. There could be a whole sub-discipline in the sociology of error about the danger of lack of diversity.
Maps continue to be useful to cities, made all the more powerful by technology. We can stand on a street corner and write a review of the bar we just exited because it was dirty, while finding a new one around the corner that someone else reviewed.
The irony, of course, is that digital networks were supposed to make cities less attractive, not more. The power of telecommuting and instant connectivity was going to make the idea of densely packed urban cores as obsolete as the walled castle-cities of the Middle Ages. Why would people crowd themselves into harsh, overpopulated environments when they could just as easily work from their homestead on the range? But as it turns out, many people actually like the density of urban environments, precisely because they offer the diversity of Viennese bakeries and art movies. As technology increases our ability to find these niche interests, that kind of density is only going to become increasingly attractive.
Author Steven Johnson points out, in the epilogue, that cities are greener as well as more capable of sustaining niche interests. He makes the case for moving toward a city-planet where 80% of us live in cities by illuminating the advantages and proposing safeguards against the modern threats to city development that have replaced cholera.
Appeal: In spite of the serious topic, this was a fun visit to Victorian London. Get acquainted with the streets and the real-life characters who lived in the neighborhood east of Regent Street in Soho. The last couple of pages before the epilogue describe the area, today, with new street names (Broad is now Broadwick), new buildings (the old ones were destroyed by a combination of the Luftwaffe and urban renewal) and new businesses (like web design firms and hipster music stores). The Ghost Map will also be appreciated by anyone with a passing interest in public health, in how cities function and thrive, or in how societal knowledge is developed.
Challenges: This is my sixth nonfiction book of 2018, if I haven’t miscounted. I’ll link it to Nonfiction Friday at Doing Dewey. Nonfiction November was announced this week — maybe that will help me get more nonfiction into my reading.
Have you read this book? What did you think?