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Audiobook Review: ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson

Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Author: Steven Johnson
Narrator: Alan Sklar
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Year: 2006
Acquired: Library
Rating: ★★★★☆

Book Review: Just about every book that talks abut Victorian London inevitably spends time talking about how unclean the city became before the birth of modern sanitation. And one event that makes it into just about every book as the perfect example of the impact of sanitation is the cholera epidemic of 1854, when residents of a single neighborhood were decimated in a 10-day period by one of the worst disease outbreaks in the city’s history.

Despite reading about the Broad Street outbreak in at least three or four different books, I didn’t really know much about it until I read The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, which is a day-by-day account of the outbreak, following the two men responsible for figuring out the cause:  Reverend Henry Whitehead, a local clergyman with intimate knowledge of the community, and Dr. John Snow, one of the first people to help prove cholera was spread through water and not through the air.

What I loved most about this book was that, despite its focus on a 10-day terror, Johnson manages to explore epidemiology, cartography, sociology, biology, history, public health, and more. And despite being so expansive, the book manages to say focused on the event and the aftermath and two truly admirable Victorian gentlemen. I enjoyed just about every minute of this book.

Audio Review: Alan Sklar, the narrator for this book, was excellent. I didn’t have any complaints about his performance at all. One challenge of listening to the book on audio was the back and forth in time, from the current 1854 epidemic to previous cholera outbreaks. If I wasn’t focusing, it was possible to get lost in what was going on. Johnson does go back to Whitehead and Snow enough to get back on track.

Other Reviews: A Book a Week | Maggie Reads | One-Minute Book Reviews |

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  • rhapsodyinbooks March 22, 2011, 7:53 am

    I really enjoyed this book too except for the last chapter. I thought he would have been better off to end just before going off subject!

    • Kim March 24, 2011, 6:44 pm

      rhapsodyinbooks: I skimmed the end of it, too. I’m not sure if it was the last chapter or the epilogue or what, but it did get a bit long at the end.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) March 22, 2011, 10:18 am

    I bet my mom would love this book!

    • Kim March 24, 2011, 6:45 pm

      bermudaonion: I hope so. For the most part, I really liked it!

  • Lu March 22, 2011, 12:45 pm

    This sounds so interesting!

    • Kim March 24, 2011, 6:46 pm

      Lu: It really was. I loved the way he took an event and made it the center of a much larger story. And I love that I know so much about the Broadstreet cholera epidemic, since it comes up on nonfiction about this era all the time.

  • Jenny March 22, 2011, 5:59 pm

    I also lost track of the book as it went back and forth between various timelines. It’s not just an audiobook thing! :p

    • Kim March 24, 2011, 6:46 pm

      Jenny: Oh good, I’m glad it wasn’t just me. But bummer it happened in the print too. Organization for books like this one can be so important.

  • Trisha March 22, 2011, 6:46 pm

    Sounds like a winner. Maintaining a balance between widely informative and tightly focused is a great skill and one I really appreciate in my nonfiction.

    • Kim March 24, 2011, 6:47 pm

      Trisha: Me too. I love books that use a single event as a jumping off point for other topics I wouldn’t have thought I was interested in.

  • Kailana March 22, 2011, 7:25 pm

    Oh, this sounds really interesting! Thanks for the review!

    • Kim March 24, 2011, 6:47 pm

      Kailana: It was! I hope you get a chance to read it.

  • Coffee and a Book Chick March 23, 2011, 7:50 am

    I read this book last year and also got a chance to meet the author when he was promoting his new book The Invention of Air. I absolutely loved The Ghost Map as well and couldn’t believe how fascinated I was by all of it, no matter how squeamish it made me! Excellent insight into this book!

    • Kim March 24, 2011, 6:48 pm

      Coffee and a Book Chick: Wow, that’s awesome! I think he would be a fun author to meet in person. I have a couple other books on my shelf that I’m looking forward to reading.

  • Jennifer March 24, 2011, 1:43 pm

    This sounds like a book that I would never really pick up on my own but after reading your review, I am actually intrigued and going to jot the name down. I love all the awesome discoveries you can make through reading blogger reviews! Thanks!

    • Kim March 24, 2011, 6:49 pm

      Jennifer: That’s great! I’m not sure I wouldn’t have grabbed it just by the title alone, but I recognized the author from some of his other books that I liked.