Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #34: The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson

I’m pretty sure I saw this recommended here on Cannonball Read, so thank you to whoever mentioned it. It’s a nifty mix of history, sociology, and science, with a smattering of that super-fashionable sort of Big Idea Meta Thinking Furturism stuff that TED talks are based on. The latter turns me off – there’s a neatness to that kind of thinking that I find a little hinky – but the book is such an enjoyable read, and Johnson for the most part maintains a lightness of touch with his ‘theory of urban networks’ thesis.

Next time you enjoy a glass of tap water, or have a shower, or flush a toilet, give up thanks to Dr. John Snow* and also the Rev. Henry Whitehead, for their work in proving that cholera is a waterborne disease. Snow’s (literally) groundbreaking work came about with a devastating cholera epidemic hit Golden Square in Soho in 1854. Johnson creates a vivid sense of what central London was like in Victorian times, drawing heavily on Dicken’s angry depictions of children in poverty, making the point that London then was the beginning of the modern city as we know it – but also a completely different, alien world.

Reading this armed me with lots of fascinating facts about poo, which is always dandy for a certain kind of after dinner crowd. And having just seen a performance piece based on Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, made me that much more in awe of my adopted home. No matter what Boris Johnson does to London, it’s seen worse plagues than him, and survived. Two days ago I walked through Soho in the sun, looking at the spot where the Broad St. water pump used to stand, and got shivers.

The last chapter does take off from the facts about Snow’s discovery in to a wider view of the oncoming future, what with megacities, super viruses, germ terrorism, and global warming to contend with. I’m enough of a wuss that I skimmed it. But the story of how the waterborne idea was proved, and the consequences of that work, was gripping.

*Not that one. He knew something.