"The purpose of this book is not to scare you. Instead, like all good books, it is intended to distract you from the screaming baby one aisle over from the airplane where you are currently trapped for the next five hours."
This book was a blast. The history is fun and engaging and crazy. (Did you know that the crazy anti-plague beak doctor costumes kind of worked? I didn't.) And the author's commentary is brash and opinionated and purely entertaining.
The Antonine plague: apparently Galen was a pretentious coward, and despite his tendency to throw Christians to the lions, Marc Antony was a terrific organiser who at least temporarily saved his empire.
The bubonic plague: well apart from the beak doctor costumes, which are awesome, there's this quote:
"Shakespeare's brothers and sisters and his son died of the bubonic plague. Theaters were closed due to the plague during his lifetime. Hans Holbein and Titian painted great works before their deaths from the plague.
Would they have preferred to live in a time without the Black Death? Yes. (This is not speculative.
I called them all and asked.) But life went on in the face of death. Even the Roman Empire was able to endure for a few hundred years after the Antonine plague. Commodus was able to dither around killing ostriches."
The Dancing plague: a mysterious illness intriguing with any narration and spiced up by the side commentary on Paracelsus's impressive level of sexism.
Smallpox: snarky commentary about how it was feared by men for its mortality and by women for its detriment to appearance, a diatribe about anti-vaxxers, and a "Guns, Germs, and Steel"-type portrayal of the destruction of the Aztecs and Incans.
"The devastation of smallpox in the Americas was not due to a vengeful God or a mysterious man bearing an evil box, but rather to the fact that the Amerindians did not spend as much quality time with their domesticated llamas as Europeans did with their cows.
Now maybe you are reading these tales of destruction and thinking, Oh, God, I myself do not have a cattle farm, or I am a proud llama farmer (there's got to be one somewhere), and are therefore convinced that you would die if you contracted smallpox because of your sad immune system--and what if terrorists purposefully incubate smallpox and come in a suicidal pact and spread it to us, and we all die and our civilization perishes and everything is very bad? I am with you, citizen! [...] Fortunately..."
Syphilis: the amazing lengths to which biographers will go to avoid admitting their subject had the disease, plus the "No-Nose Club."
TB: a tirade against the romanticism of the disease.
Cholera: a character assassination of John Snow (personally, I think he sounds a bit spectrum and I'd like to have a conversation with him, if only to know how he came up with the idea of veganism about a century before it was a fad). Points gained for never using the phrase, "You know nothing," when describing the cholera detective.
Leprosy: the truly lovely story of Father Damien, the Leper Priest of Molokai.
Typhoid: the rather insane story of Typhoid Mary, the government's attempt to lock her up, and her determination to make ice cream despite it all.
The Spanish Flu: apparently it wasn't actually Spanish in origin, but:
"An all-American plague hailing from Haskell, Kansas. There is still research that attempts to pin the biggest plague in the twentieth century on anyplace else (guesses range from China to Great Britain), probably because "America's bread-basket" is a much nicer way to refer to the Midwest than "the planet's flu-bin."
The most amazing aspect of this particular plague is the incredible lengths the US and UK went to to pretend it wasn't happening, including threatening journalists with jail and/or death.
Encephalitis Lethargica: scary scary scary, with the interesting collateral that it may be the disease responsible for a lot of our endless-sleep fairy tales.
Lobotomies: not actually a plague, unless you'd consider "hysteria" in women to be a plague, but I think Wright just really wanted to talk about Walter Jackson Freeman II and his penis ring (seriously) and the time he put two ice picks in both eye sockets and hammered them in simultaneously... actually probably the most horrifying chapter.
"Feel free to start using Walter Jackson Freeman II as an insult directed towards people you hate. Almost no one will get the reference, but if I am in the room we'll high-five and it will be awesome."
Polio: coming after the lobotomy chapter, a rather heartwarming and life-affirming take on FDR, March of Dimes, Jonas Salk's polio vaccine, and the biggest human trial in history.
HIV/AIDS: the really depressing state of this current epidemic, our return to demonising the victims and treating the disease as a "judgement" and a consequence of "bad behaviour," as with syphilis. My problem with this chapter is that it really talks only about the disease in the US. In the Congo, it affects a truly horrific percentage of the population, and conspiracies that western governments actually created and spread the disease do nothing to help mitigate it.
I got to the end of the book and was sad that there was no more. I would have thoroughly enjoyed a chapter on yellow fever or measles or mumps or rubella (the namesakes of the now unfairly-infamous MMR vaccine), or meningitis, one of the more frightening diseases of my childhood, or tetanus, aka lockjaw? I suspect Wright would have enjoyed describing tetanic convulsions. My only major complaint against the book is its extreme Western focus. Where was the Plague of Justinian? The Ebola outbreaks in Africa? Malaria in Spain and Africa? What about dengue fever, particularly in the eighteenth century? "History" doesn't mean "Western history," and I really wish more historians would remember it. But other than my greedy desire for more--or perhaps a sequel--
I got a huge kick out of the book. If those quotes sound intriguing and you like the conversational style and snark, grab a copy. It's a wild ride. And now I'm off to go request Wright's other book, It Ended Badly, from the library...