The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The Book: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Genre: Nonfiction, history with a splash of science

Back Cover Copy: “It’s the summer of 1954, and London is seized by a violent outbreak of cholera… As the epidemic spreads, a maverick physician and a local curate are spurred to action, working to solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time. In a triumph of multidisciplinary thinking, Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories of the spread of disease, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a thrilling account of the most intense cholera outbreak to strike Victorian London and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in.”

Grade: A-

One Sentence Review: Very strong for most of the book, but the epilogue lacked focus.

One Paragraph Review: Like the best nonfiction, The Ghost Map is about a lot of things: the history of epidemiology, cholera, and London; a tale of two men and their friendship; some basic germ theory and disease theory, among other things. Also like the best nonfiction, it is well-researched without getting slowed down by too many details. He has a thirty page epilogue (which seems a trifle long for a 250 page long book) where he looks to the future of cities and epidemiology, but that was, to me, the weakest part of the book. I am a strong proponent of historical nonfiction authors taking their conclusions and applying them to the present and future, but Johnson’s epilogue strained my credulity. Still, this is definitely a book worth picking up if you’re interesting in Victorian London, epidemiology, or historical nonfiction in general.


One last note: The Ghost Map is about cholera, a terrible disease that is, thankfully, all but eradicated in the Western world. I’m sure you’re all aware of the outbreak in Haiti, which has killed 3,889 as of late January according to its Wikipedia page. There are other outbreaks, many occurring in Africa, which affects millions of people and kills 100,000-130,000 people each year. The thing is… the thing that makes those hundred thousand deaths such an effing tragedy is that to both prevent and cure cholera (as well as some other diseases) is something so simple, something that everybody on this earth should have: clean water. This isn’t a disease we have to figure out a cure for. We know the cure. We know how to get the cure out to people. We just need to do it!

So if you have $10 or $20 (which I know many people don’t), please consider donating to any of the many clean water charities. Local access to clean water solves more problems than cholera. Here’s a link to’s main page for more information and its donation page if you want to give right away, but there are a TON of these organizations if doesn’t float your boat. Just google “clean water charity” and find your favorite!


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