This is the funniest book about diseases I’ve ever read. That may seem like faint praise, but I have read a lot of books about diseases. I love reading about diseases because it makes me feel better about my own life. “I may not be able to find a parking spot, but at least I don’t have malaria”, or “my cat puked in the laundry, but hey, it’s better than having tuberculosis!” If you’re someone who loves reading about medicine or if you are just an anxious person who is obsessed with things that scare them, I heartily recommend this book.
And did I mention it’s funny? Wright’s deadpan humor made me laugh out loud several times each chapter. For example when she talks about how Elizabeth Siddal didn’t die of tuberculosis, but part of her fame was that she looked like she had that oh-so-fashionable disease. Instead her death was from an overdose, but was exacerbated by the fact that she hardly ever ate. Wright suggests that well meaning time travelers could go back in time and whisk her forward to our more enlightened era where supermodels are not pressured to starve themselves and damage their health to maintain society’s idea of beauty. Oh, wait. The narrator of the audiobook also did a great job reading it, hitting the snarky tone of the humor just right.
You should especially read this if you’re one of those poor, misguided fools who eschews vaccinations because of something an idiot celebrity said on the internet. Thanks to anti-vaxxers, going blind from rubella, deaf from measles, getting crippled from polio or just plain dying from easily preventable communicable diseases that ravaged our not-too-distant antecedents is once again possible. And the best part is, if there’s an outbreak, it won’t just be you or your child who dies, you can spread it to other vulnerable people so they can get it too! Fun times!
Wright talks about how people handled epidemics in the past. Good leaders such as Marcus Aurelius (the Antonine plague) kept their cool and made sure the government subsidized funerals, because dead bodies in the streets are not a good thing. FDR is also listed as a good leader, sponsoring “birthday balls” to raise money to fund a polio vaccine.
Bad leaders include Woodrow Wilson, who refused to let any journalist publish anything that could be construed as negative or defamatory, you know, because there was a war on. Which basically meant that people had no idea that they were on the cusp of an epidemic that would go on to kill hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, overshadowing the bubonic plague. But you weren’t allowed to talk about it, which basically meant that people did stupid things like sending a carrier of a disease that killed healthy people to an army base. And the government refused to advise people against even the most basic precautions, such as “don’t go to that parade” people people might worry, so they went the parades and died by the thousands. Also among bad leaders was Ronald Reagan, who literally laughed when he heard about a new disease that was killing Americans. You know, because they were gay. So who cares, right? Just slash the funding and ignore it.
Diseases have always been with us, have always been the #1 enemy of humankind. Diseases will always be with us, and the next epidemic is just around the corner. Books that talk unflinchingly about history are valuable, if enough people read them. Since we can’t count on good leadership to guide us if and when the inevitable happens, we have to be informed as best we can. This is a good starter-book if you want to know something about epidemics but aren’t (like me) a little bit too fascinated by the topic. And also, it’s funny.