So much about this book was truly wonderful, but the organization left a lot to be desired. Perhaps the scope of the entire project was just too large and the book would have been better served if Johnson had narrowed the scope, but more on that later.
This book begins with a stomach churning description of life in London in the 1800s. I’ll paraphrase: It was gross. And smelled bad. As people began to crowd into the cities, the problem of disposing of human waste began to get a bit of attention. Diseases and epidemics would run their course without much check and leave various families decimated, but that wasn’t uncommon. Life expectancies were low and infant mortality rates were high and medicine was sometimes a series of guesses that caused more harm than good. In the midst of this lived a family called Lewis whose infant daughter would be the ‘patient zero’ in a deadly cholera epidemic that would change the way science approached communicable diseases. Full disclosure: I read this book IN THE MIDDLE of a food poisoning situation. I kept telling my husband that the vivid and horrific descriptions of cholera suffering were eerily reminiscent to my own symptoms and I might indeed have cholera. He rolled his eyes, but if he had read those descriptions he would be more squeamish than I was. Johnson does a wonderful job of describing what life would have been like in the 1800s in London and the effects of cholera. He describes what cholera is, and how it spread and carefully relates the details of the investigation into the epidemic. Johnson makes these cholera victims and survivors come alive as real people. He makes their lives matter.
The difficulties I discovered were that the title of the book and the content don’t exactly match. The Ghost Map refers to a document prepared to show how the cholera spread and convince medical experts of the day that cholera was water born and not transmitted via the air. It was one of the earliest examples of data visualization, which is in itself an interesting story. The last part of the book discusses the glories of urban living. While this last portion technically goes along with some points Johnson made earlier, it was both a change in tone and a change in focus of the book. In short, it was unnecessary. A good non fiction presents information and allows a reader to make their own interpretations. Johnson wants to make a point, and does so heavy handedly.