Lovely review of The Ghost Map by David Quammen in the Times Book Review this morning. It's interesting to see the many ways that reviewers have tried to connect the book to Everything Bad: some arguing for a connection between John Snow's battle against the orthodoxy of the day to my battle against the anti-pop culture biases of our own time; others playing on the idea that I'm finally admitting that some bad things are truly bad for you. Quammen has a clever connection, drawing upon the Harper's games forum I recently participated in:
Johnson himself, having spent much of his childhood playing baseball-simulation games rich with complexity and data, has now applied his own nimble cognitive skills to a real-world ecosystem much messier than any imaginary ball diamond or video-game universe: the city of London in the mid-19th century, with its 2.4 million humans, nightmarish plumbing and burden of dangerous microbes.
The truth is, I think the books really aren't that related at all. As I've said here before, Emergence is really the prequel to this new one.
He also has an interesting critique at the end:
One tic, which seems to me not just a matter of careless wording, is his overly frequent use of the word “ironically” and its variants: “The tragic irony of cholera” was one thing, “the dominant irony of the state of British public health” was something else, the “dark irony” of the miasma theory was this, the “sad irony” of Snow’s argument was that — and I could cite many other instances. That’s a little too much irony for one short book, and it seems to reflect Johnson’s insistence that his insights, beyond being interesting and significant, are ingenious reversals of expectation.
I think I half agree with this critique. As a matter of style, he's got a point. I probably could have come up with more original phrasing. But I genuinely don't see The Ghost Map as a contrarian book, reversing conventional wisdom the way Everything Bad clearly was designed to do. In most of the instances that Quammen refers to, I'm not saying that my interpretation is particularly clever. I'm saying that the historical actors were trying to do something, and ironically managed to do the exact opposite, as in Chadwick poisoning the water supply in his battle against cholera. But perhaps that's a sloppy use of "irony" itself.