What I’m Reading (No. 118): London — An Epidemic and a Famous Detective
Finally, I feel like I’m back into a good reading groove. I’ve finished up a few good books this week that I’d been plodding along with, including Steven Johnson’s remarkably optimistic The Ghost Map.
Since the setting for that one is 19th century London, it also felt like the perfect time to finally chat about Sherlock Holmes. The reading list for the week, then, comes in the form of my top 5 favorite Holmes stories that I’ve read thus far.
Let’s get right to it.
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (2006, 262 pages)
“This is how great intellectual breakthroughs usually happen in practice. It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.”
I started The Ghost Map a few weeks ago (which feels like months…) in hopes of understanding our current pandemic a little better. I knew Steven’s work from his wisdom-soaked Farsighted, and I knew he’d take a bird’s-eye, multidisciplinary view of things. The Ghost Map did not disappoint in that regard, and is one of the more memorable books I’ve read in the last few years. (Of course, it’ll stick with me for a long time for no other reason than it’s now associated with this crazy period in time.)
Anyways, the bulk of the narrative takes places over roughly the first 150 pages. A cholera outbreak in London in 1854 takes the lives of 700 residents in basically one neighborhood. It wasn’t the city’s deadliest outbreak, but it was the one that most managed to change the world later on. Really, cholera was a side affect of London itself; such a dense, infrastructure-less city was experiencing epidemics every few years. The leading science of the day figured cholera was an airborne disease; the thinking went that the putrid smells in the air carried the bacteria from person to person.
But one man came along (with help from others, of course) and proved them all wrong by drawing detailed maps about people’s water-drinking habits. In fact, John Snow tracked the disease back to the very water pump that wreaked havoc on that poor neighborhood. This “ghost map” revolutionized not only the infant field of epidemiology, but urban planning too. The outbreak of ‘54 led to London’s most impressive architectural feat: it’s sewer system. That network of pipes proved that major urban areas could handle the literal waste of all its inhabitants. It paved the way for every megacity to follow.
In a couple of lengthy concluding chapters, Johnson tackles urbanism as a whole. He tracks its successes through the centuries and also its threats. At the top of that latter list is nuclear war and pandemic; Johnson, well-versed in history and epidemiology, has some really interesting (and hopeful) ideas about the future of pandemics in large societies. I found this long postlude of sorts to be just as interesting as the main narrative, if not more so. There are numerous lessons to be had for today, and it in fact feels like it could have been written in the last month:
“However profound the threats are that confront us today, they are solvable, if we acknowledge the underlying problem, if we listen to science and not superstition, if we keep a channel open for dissenting voices that might actually have real answers.”
Johnson writes with a storytelling flare that’s hard to beat in non-fiction writing. While it may seem a bit masochistically distressing to read about disease in the midst of a pandemic, this is a unique book that focuses on optimism rather than the pestilence itself. I can’t wait to read his new book, which is about pirates. So that’s cool.
Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
“Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.”
It’s almost impossible to capture to cultural impact of Doyle’s creation of detective Sherlock Holmes back in 1887. It’s been said there have been more adaptations of Holmes (in other novels, stage productions, TV shows, and movies) than any other literary character.
You’ve definitely heard of him and yet I bet it’s a minority who’ve read the original short stories (56 in number) and/or novels (4 in number). Over the last 6 months or so, I’ve immensely enjoyed reading about half of those works.
While I haven’t read any in the midst of this pandemic, I actually think it’d be a great distraction read if you’re in need of one. Even the novels are short and the writing is remarkably readable given its age.
The first appearance of Sherlock, in the novel A Study in Scarlet, is probably my favorite. The length gives it some more depth than the short stories and serves as a perfect introduction to both Holmes, the loyal and universally likable sidekick Dr. Watson, and Doyle’s distinctive writing style and story structuring. What I perhaps most enjoy about the stories is that Holmes strings along both reader and Watson himself in holding back certain clues until just the right reveal moment. You certainly won’t catch the entire roadmap of the crime/mystery on a first reading, which is definitely Doyle’s intent. It’s also what makes the stories so re-readable.
After A Study in Scarlet came another novel, The Sign of Four. I wasn’t as much of a fan of the story, but it includes some important plot elements for the Holmes universe that shouldn’t be missed, including, most memorably, Holmes’ casual cocaine use.
Next up were a couple collections of stories. Of the 20 or so I’ve read (which each consume just 20-30 minutes), my favorites so far are:
“The Red-Headed League” (this one is the most fun)
The Holmes stories are just plain fun and oftentimes dryly funny. They’re delightfully innocent — no sex or remotely intense violence to be found — and take the reader along on some unexpected rides.
I’ll certainly be finishing the complete tales within the next couple years and all of Holmes gets my hearty recommendation for readers of all types.
That’s all for me this week. I’d love to hear what you’re reading! Thank you for the time and inbox space.