‘Ghost Map’ is frighteningly unpleasant, dull


Thousands are dying. The cause is unknown. Resources are nonexistent. Time is running out. It’s exciting, compelling and terrifying.

But on paper, it’s about as breathtaking as a dictionary.

Sadly, “Ghost Map” – the story of London’s most devastating outbreak of cholera – fails to translate the electrifying chapter of history to print. It’s dull, dry and moves at the pace of a 7:30 a.m. lecture.

“Ghost Map” follows the footsteps of two very different men: John Snow, an up-and-coming young doctor, and Henry Whitehead, a local reverend. Snow is described as a “maverick physician,” one of the most brilliant, observant men of the era. It was through his careful reflection that he was able to solve the mystery of then-anesthetic ether; why it killed some but not others. He was the medical genius of his time.

Meanwhile, Whitehead was the friendly, sociable clergyman. He knew the ins and outs of every neighborhood. Noted for having “a good memory for detail,” the reverend could recall details about anyone. He was more than a minister; he was a trusted friend among members of the community.

Both these men follow the path that the cholera epidemic weaves. Though they initially butt heads at the cause of the epidemic, they eventually join together to fight, and ultimately triumph, against the rampant killer. It’s a rather enticing David-and-Goliath type tale that would normally draw any reader in, but author Steven Johnson fails to keep his audience’s attention.

Johnson is clearly not lacking for source material. The bibliography listed at the end of the book is staggering, thus making for an in-depth account. This author clearly did his homework, but his dismal writing keeps the book from making a real impact.

Most exasperating, perhaps, is Johnson’s tendency to take what could be pulse-pounding material and dwell on it only for a moment – or ignore it altogether. Early in the book, Snow is examining water from the Broad Street pump, which he believed (and later proved) was causing London’s epidemic.

Johnson writes that Snow “had mixed the water with a thimble of brandy and swallowed it.” The chapter ends, and so does the storyline. Did Snow experience any adverse effects from drinking the water? If so, did it help in his research? Rather than answer these questions, Johnson instead drags his audience through an attempt at describing the fear that took hold of London, but fails to take hold of the reader.

This book could easily appeal to history buffs, if they can get past the tedious prose. Informative as it is, “Ghost Map” lacks the biting tension of other historical plague accounts such as “No Place Left to Bury the Dead” and “The Dancing Plague.” Like the ether used in Snow’s surgical procedures, “Ghost Map” will more than likely put readers to sleep.

Maggie Stanton is a sophomore in communication studies. Please send comments to edge@kstatecollegian.com.