Book Review: THE GHOST MAP


The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, is very close to a perfect book. The book describes the birth of modern epidemiology as it arose in response to a virulent outbreak of cholera in a particular 1854 London neighborhood. If you, unlike me, are not horribly enthralled by cholera or nerdily swoon at epidemiology, this has the potential to be a very dry read. And, in fact, going into this book I already knew the story of this particular outbreak of cholera because I’d read about it in much less gripping books about Victorian medicine*. What makes The Ghost Map different, and what makes it the kind of book that I now want to thrust into the unsuspecting hands of everyone I know, is that it does a remarkable job contextualizing the outbreak such that you, as a modern reader who likely has no direct experience of cholera, understands the absolute terror the Londoners felt in this outbreak. You feel the visceral urgency that comes with that terror, the awful need to unravel what the horrible riddle that was cholera.

Much of the book follows Dr. Jon Snow**, who is an interesting historical figure in his own right. A pioneer of anesthesiology, Jon Snow also had a fascination with cholera. It was he who, without the aid of developed germ theory, deduced that cholera must be waterborne and traced the outbreak back to a particular water pump on Broad Street. The Ghost Map has shades of narrative non-fiction, just enough to draw Jon Snow and the other players as real people, complete people with thoughts and tragic flaws and beating hearts. The book never tips fully over into narrative non-fiction, restraining itself enough that it does not speak for these historical figures, which I appreciated.

But to say that this is a book about Jon Snow’s prodigious scientific contributions is to give it short shrift. The real strength of the book is that it takes this single narrative thread—Jon Snow’s proto-epidemiological investigations into the 1854 cholera outbreak—and locates it in a myriad of nested lenses. This narrative thread is explored from the lens of the microbial cholera itself, describing cholera’s life cycle and the way cholera adapted to the new context of a dense and dirty human metropolis. This narrative thread is explored from the sociological lens of why Snow’s waterborne theory had to fight so hard to gain traction against the classist and Social Darwinist competing miasmatic theory of cholera transmission. Ultimately, the unifying element of the book is that Stevenson frames the 1854 cholera outbreak in terms of waste recycling—he starts the book with descriptions of the London underclasses who survived by compiling and moving and disposing of the mountains of human waste that Victorian London produced. He frames microbes as creatures whose waste products ultimately gave rise to multicellular creatures like ourselves. It is a fascinating, cyclical framing device that allows the reader to understand just how smoothly all the pieces fit together.

If you are interested in medicine, or the human body, or biological systems, or cityscapes, or Victorian England or just really good non-fiction I cannot recommend this book enough.


*I told you I was into this stuff. I will not apologize for who I am, reader.

**Full disclosure, I read A Song of Ice and Fire before my interest in Victorian cholera outbreaks asserted itself, so every time I read about the illustrious Dr. Jon Snow I have a hard time imagining him as the small, proper Englishman he was. Instead Jon Snow as portrayed by Kit Harrington from the Game of Thrones TV show pops into my head in improbable full costume stalking around Victorian London doing science. Here is an illustration so you, too, can experience this:


10 Years With Jon

Today is my tenth anniversary with my partner, Jon. Ten years is a long time no matter how you cut it, but for us it’s a lifetime. We got together the fall semester of our freshman year in college, which is to say that we have been together our entire adult lives.

It’s inevitable that when you’re with someone for years and years that they will rub off on you. But, being with someone for years and years starting in late adolescence and early adulthood – that tumultuous time where you’re still figuring out who you are and who you want to be – means the bleed over is especially pronounced. There is no question that I am who I am today in large part because I’ve been with Jon since I was eighteen.

Jon has made me a better person. There is no questioning that. I was a wounded mess when we first got together, and I was, in fact, so thoroughly wounded that I refused to admit I had, perhaps, not emerged from an abusive home life unscathed. I was all rough edges, all sharp, jutting angles, and the years with Jon have smoothed them away. He is safe, and he is stable, and there is so much trust that the wounds have healed and the rough edges have been worn down. He taught me patience, he taught me perspective, and compassion, and he taught me the limits of what is acceptable and what is not. And for all of that I am immensely grateful.

I love him. I always have, and I always will. There’s no question of that. Jon is the foundation of my life, but he wouldn’t have become that if he wasn’t hilariously funny, and tremendously sweet, and odd as hell, and smart as a whip. We are very different people, he and I, but we have within us a deep compatibility that only ever grows stronger. He is lazy, and frustrating, and touchy, but he is really, truly, the best. My favorite.

Ten years together is a long time, but we have decades to go. We have years and years ahead of us. We get to raise our kid together, we get to see each other and laugh and watch awful TV together every day. You know things are good when the idea of forty, fifty, sixty years more with someone feels like freedom.

This poem by Frank O’Hara sums up my feelings nicely:


is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it

NaBloPoMo: Leadership Story

I’m currently part of the Education Pioneers Analyst Fellowship, and this week I’ve been at a convening of the fellows. I was asked to develop and present my leadership story, which is a fancy way of saying I had to tell people what about my life pushed me to go into education. Here it is:

I’m going to tell you three little stories first.

I was in band from the 6th grade through the end of high school. I played French horn, and I was actually pretty good at it. When I was in the 8th grade, I tried out for district and got through. I tried out for regionals and got through. I tried out for state and made it. It was kind of a big deal. The concert for the state level band was out of town. My mom drove me to it and was supposed to stay there and watch, but she left partway through. She was just not there. I can’t really say I was surprised, but I’ll get to that later. The upshot was that I waited, my heart slowly sinking, growing more numb than anything else, as the other kids left with their parents. My band director was there, and he realized without having to be told that she wasn’t coming, and he drove me two hours home.

Ok, here’s the second one. I wish I could say that I applied myself in high school, but the truth is I didn’t. I was smart enough that I could skate by. I was chronically absent – like, missed two or three days of school a week on the regular levels of absent – and I still graduated third in my class. Anyway, the absences stacked up, and there were some times where both me and my kid sister had unexcused absences on the same day. One of the days I did actually manage to get to school and stay there longer than a period or two, my government teacher stopped me in the hallway. “Hey, is everything ok?” I told him it was, and I felt like it was at the time, but the truth was it wasn’t. “Are you sure? Because you’ve missed a lot and when the office tried to call your house the line was down.” My parents hadn’t paid the phone bill. “If it happens again, they’ll call social services,” he said.

Fast forward to college. There was a Christmas where I was not welcome at home and I didn’t really want to go there anyway, so my plan was just to stay on campus. It was well in to winter break and I think I was returning some videos to the public library or something. Anyway, I went to college at Oberlin, which is a tiny little town in Ohio which ends up totally empty when the students clear out on breaks. It wasn’t that surprising when I ran into one of my professors at the library. I’d taken four classes with him, and he knew me pretty well, and he asked me why I was still in town. “Family stuff,” I told him. And he just knew, somehow, without having to be told. He had me come to his house, with his family, for Christmas dinner. I ate really good turkey there and played with his granddaughter. It was the best Christmas I’ve had before or since.

Through the course of this convening, we’ve heard over and over again how education is a people business, and that’s what I want you to take away from me. It is a people business, and the people are children, who sometimes are drifting along and helpless. As you’ve probably gleaned from these stories, my family life was not great. I was dealing with some real Tennessee Williams shit – rampant alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, neglect. I won’t get into the specifics. I have a kid sister, and my childhood was mostly centered around taking the brunt of it so she didn’t have to. I grew up poor, and I grew up visibly, noticeably queer in Texas, and I might as well be honest I grew up struggling with my gender in a family that was not comfortable with that at all. What I’m saying is I was a total mess as a kid and a teenager. I acted out, got in fights. But the thing is, I was smart, and I knew college was a way out. And I was lucky enough to have teachers who pushed me back on track when I started to drift too far. Teachers helped me fill out college apps and write entrance essays, not my parents. They helped me score scholarships.

So I got to college, and I loved it. I really blossomed there, because it was safe. There’s a common thing with people who grow up in abusive families where they don’ remember that much about their childhoods. It’s like that for me. Memories of home are fractured. It’s weird. But I remember a lot about school pretty clearly, because school was stable and safe. College was even better because it was stable and safe all the time. I was lucky enough to really bond with some of my professors, and it was the absolute best thing for me. I could not be more grateful. They were a support network for me, and I needed it, because even though I was states away my crappy home life still haunted me. My dad got cancer, and fought it, and died, and though we had a complicated relationship to say the least, we were close and it was hard on me. And then the shit really hit the fan, because my mom just lost it. There were suicide attempts, and then she started telling my sister they should both kill themselves, and I had to move my sister into my dorm room.

My sister moved back home after a few months even though I didn’t want her to, and she dropped out of high school. I felt powerless, and some of my professors could tell and reached out to me. I was estranged from my mom by then and they helped me figure out how to get financial aid to work around some stuff and they did a lot of talking with me about what to do after college. I decided with a lot of encouragement to go to grad school.

I did really well in grad school, but academia is not really my scene. I need more on the ground, meaningful impact stuff than you get with psych research. So I started community organizing, much of which was about education, which fed into working with teachers in Detroit. And then I got pregnant, and I started thinking about what being a professor is like and how meaningless academic work felt to me, and how I wanted to really model social change for my kid. And I thought about how transformative education had been for me, but how I’ve been one of the lucky ones, and how my own sister is not one of the lucky ones. So I bailed on academia and went into organizing full time.

Working with teachers is really powerful stuff, and meaningful, but being a full time organizer means you can only talk about certain things to certain people in certain ways. I found it very limiting. And I wanted to be more directly involved with the education system, doing something that had a more direct line of advocacy for kids like me. I found the ed pioneers listing on idealist and was like “holy shit, this is perfect. This is just perfect.”

And here I am. And I’ve landed in this job where I get to think and talk about race and class in education all the time, where there’s tons of data to work with. It feels really hopeful. For the first time in a long time I feel really hopeful.