Victorian England was not that long ago, not so long that we don't understand the writers of the time or can't empathize with the plights of the characters they created. In many ways, though, Victorian England was a completely foreign place. Reading Dickens, for instance, reading of the great fogs that would blanket the city, dampening sound and choking breath, we get a sense of the visual atmosphere of the great city. What we don't get is any sense of the smell, the heavy waves of the stench of millions of people and millions of animals eating, working, living, dying and, above all, crapping. There was no real sewage system, no supply of reliable fresh water. Those who could afford to bought water from a reliable company; those who couldn't made their way to the closest public well they could find. They drank, cooked and sometimes bathed in whatever came out. Crap, for the most part, went out the window to the street, into a cesspit or to the basement if no place else would do. We look back from here and now and wonder how they survived. We read of the plagues and know that frequently they didn't.
Most frightening of these modern plagues was cholera. Striking fast and killing within days, whole family lines could end in a matter of weeks. No one knew how it spread, smell being the prevalent and sensible theory, but spread it did. One outbreak of the deadly disease, though, broke out in just the right place and time to be seen, tracked and studied by two people who cared a great deal about the neighborhood and the people in it. These two people came with the right tools, the right skills and great hearts. The story of Dr. John Snow and the Reverend Henry Whitehead are the subject of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.
I like this niche of book, these close examinations of the little human victories whose size belies their importance. On the surface all Gray and Whitehead did was make a map, drawing out where some people died. That map, however, was the distillation of a great deal of work, and no small amount of inspiration. Gray was certain the cholera was spread by tainted water. General medical opinion favored smell or some other vector, like class. No one could say why one family might get sick, another not. Gray knew medicine and Whitehead knew the people. Between them they tracked down everyone who caught cholera in this round of epidemic. They looked at when they caught the disease and who was with them. Why did none of the brewers in the neighborhood brewery get sick when they breathed the same smelly air? Why did one woman across town get sick but no one in between? Plotting these cases out on a map seemed a good way to look at the data; knowledge of the neighborhoods gave the two men the foresight to plot the map not by absolute distance to water source, but by convenience to the source. Plotted out, it became clear that the disease came from one specific well. What about the woman across town? She liked the taste of the water from the well and had her children carry it to her. The brewers? They got a ration of beer every day; the alcohol killed the cholera.
The Ghost Map isn't the first book about a map; there are lots of books on graphical information and lots of books on disease. The cholera epidemic of 1854, though, was perhaps the first epidemic systematically researched and quashed by rational thinking, ignoring traditional causes of epidemic and seeking out what can be demonstrated and proved. No one had yet proved that a specific wee beastie caused cholera, but Gray and Whitehead could prove that tainted water caused cholera to spread, and Johnson does an entertaining job of walking us through the greatness of that leap.
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Kockroach by Tyler Knox
Kockroach has a fairly simple premise: What if a cockroach were to wake up one day to find he's been turned into a man? Knox's revisioning of Kafka's Metamorphosis is a dark and grimly funny look at what it means to be human today, as grandly told as an Orson Welles epic, as if he had made Citizen K instead of that other film.