This book surprised me in several ways. Mostly good.
I wanted to read it because I'm fascinated by maps and all their various uses. Based on the title, “The Ghost Map”, I was expecting an interesting story about the London cholera epidemic of 1853-54 and how a map was used to help identify the cause. I got in a couple chapters and the author was describing the neighborhood where the epidemic was centered, in much detail, street by street, and he hadn't even mentioned a map yet. Maybe the doctor investigating the epidemic hadn't started his map yet, but I wanted one to help me envision the environs. I found out later that there was an anemic map of that part of London at the beginning of the book, but since I was reading on a Kindle I missed it, and it was unreadable so it wouldn't have done me much good anyway.
But the story was good – interesting and well-written – so I kept reading. I even enjoyed the author's lengthy side trips into Victorian sociology and scientific history; they enhanced my understanding of the Victorian mindset. My second surprise came when the actual events surrounding the epidemic and investigation finished little more than halfway through the book, followed by a lengthy Conclusion and an Epilogue. I had forgotten the subtitle of the book: “The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World”.
The Conclusion tells the story of the Map – one of the most reproduced maps ever published – and the innovations in epidemiology and science generally which arose during this time. Johnson gives a very lucid explanation of the long term effects of the work John Snow and Henry Whitehead did in solving the puzzle of this epidemic.
Done, right? No. Johnson then goes on in an Epilogue to discuss the future of humanity. It's his belief that we will be best served by living primarily in cities, and that many of the changes which can be traced to the search for the cause of the 1853-54 epidemic – from cartography to epidemiology to demographics to urban planning – are what makes that possible. He makes an interesting and compelling argument.
It's not a terribly long book, exclusive of the notes and index, of course, and I highly recommend it.Review 6/23/2011