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Book Review: The Ghost Map

During the first few weeks of the pandemic, I lost my ability to focus on books.  Slowly, as this life has become routine and the fearful news scrolling has been contained to a few minutes a day, I have gone back to books.  So, when trying to decide what to read, I was inspired by a recommendation from the Reading Glasses Podcast.  In times of crisis, we look to things in the past that may be similar to what we are experiencing, hoping to learn something or find solace in the struggle of the generations before us. 

The Ghost Map is the story of how cholera ripped through a large swath of London in the 1800's, but it is also how politics and pseudo-science threatened to destroy the lives of thousands of people.  It follows the gripping tale of a doctor searching for the source of cholera transmission, even as he was ridiculed and dissuaded by his contemporaries.  It's also a tale of urban planning and how systemic poverty and classism manifested in architecture that created a breeding ground for the epidemic.  Like all pandemics, it shone a bright light on the disparities of society and was a catalyst for change.

I was captivated by this book, not only for the gruesome detail with which the author outlined the conditions of London at that time, but because though a different type of sickness, cholera worked to fundamentally change the landscape of London much like the coronavirus may ultimately change our world.  We're just now starting to guess how we may move forward from this, and we don't have the luxury of hindsight, but reading The Ghost Map made me yearn for the future history books that will tell the story of our time now and how we handled it.  It is my sincere hope that those pages will outline how science and common sense and a drive to care for our most vulnerable helped move our society forward for the betterment of all.


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