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KSBN Focus: The Ghost Map

By Marcia Allen, Technical Services Manager

ghost

Each academic year, the K-State Book Network (KSBN) selects an exceptional book for a common reading experience. In conjunction with that all-university-read, campus activities, classroom experiences, and community programs are offered that share additional insights into the book. In the past years, enthusiastic participants have been fortunate enough to share in the reading of outstanding titles like Ready Player One, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Zeitoun, and The Hunger Games.

This year’ title is an equally stellar selection. The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, which was first published in 2006, is an amazing tale of detective work and perseverance that will demand your attention despite its sometimes appalling content. Here’s a hint about the levels of appeal that the book presents.

First of all, it’s a graphic examination of living conditions in 19th century London. While the story begins with a lengthy description of the scavengers (night-soil men) who sought items for recycling in the filth of the city, the real focus is on a cholera epidemic which began in 1854 in the neighborhood of Broad Street. As is often the case, the first one or two deaths quickly multiplied, and in a period of some ten days, more than 500 people lost their lives.

Secondly, the book is an excellent account of the life of disease, as well as the common beliefs about contagion. Johnson does an exceptional job of describing the source, the growth, and the resulting symptoms and death that accompany a cholera outbreak. The close proximity of cesspools to drinking water sources and the density of the population combined for a perfect hosting environment for the epidemic. Coupled with those physical conditions were the common beliefs in “miasma,” or poisoned atmosphere, as the cause of sickness. Neither medical experts nor average citizens understood the actual causes of contagion, so few productive efforts were made to stop the spread of disease.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, this is an incredible detective story. Dedicated physician John Snow had done pioneering work with the newly discovered use of anesthetics, but he had also pondered the frequent outbreaks of cholera for some years, and even attempted to chart the deaths. When this sudden horrific outbreak near Broad Street caught his attention, he began questioning the unthinkable: Could the water supply be related to the epidemic? At the same time, local clergyman Henry Whitehead began work on his own study involving the reach and duration of the outbreak. Because Whitehead knew his congregation so well, he was able to pinpoint dates of deaths as well as numbers lost to the outbreak. In fact, it was actually his discovery of the timespan when the first victim sickened and died that brought the two investigators together. From that point, the two men were able to chart the spread of the epidemic throughout the neighborhood. Thus, the “ghost map” of the title is the carefully documented layout of the related deaths throughout the area.
Of course, these dedicated souls did not bring about immediate change in London. But their pioneering work served as an impetus for early developments in waste-removal and sanitary water supply that not only improved the health of thousands, but also restored the vigor of the much-polluted Thames River.

If you are interested in learning more about the book and its contents, the following programs are scheduled:
On Science Saturday, September 6 at 10:00 a.m., in the MPL’s lower atrium, Ginny Bernard from Riley County Extension will guide listeners of all ages through some hands-on experiments concerning diseases, germs and water contamination. You can register here.

On Thursday, September 11th at 7:00 p.m., there is an author talk in McCain Auditorium with Steven Johnson. Tickets are required to attend the free event and will be available for community members on Wednesday, September 3 at the Manhattan Public Library.

On Thursday, September 25th at 7:00 p.m., there is a Good Books Club Book Discussion to be held in the Groesbeck Room of MPL. Snacks will be provided.

Please plan to attend these events if your schedule allows, and enjoy your reading of the book. It’s a one-of-a-kind reading experience.

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Marcia

Technical Services Manager at Manhattan Public Library

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Posted in: For Adults, Mercury Column, News

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