By Emily Miranker, Events & Projects Manager
Our last post suggested foundation and fictional summer reading along the theme of contagion, especially the infectious influenza epidemic of 1918, to whet your appetite for our forthcoming exhibition Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis (opening September 14, 2018). Read on for more not-your-usual summer reading ideas.
Cities are concentrated hubs of peoples’ movements and interactions; for better or worse, the perfect location for populations and infections to collide. And, perhaps more than any other modern metropolis, the fabric of New York City has been shaped by responses to epidemic disease.
Cities and Sickness
- Hives of Sickness: Public Health and Epidemics in New York City, edited by David Rosner
- Epidemic City: The Politics of Public Health in New York, James Colgrove
- Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America, Melanie A. Kiechle
- The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, Steven Johnson
Rosner’s Hives of Sickness is a great work to start with for looking at disease through the lens of urbanism; it’s a collection of nine essay the reader can dip and in out of. It’s fascinating to see how many of NYC’s public health initiatives were assigned to government agencies besides or along with the Dept. of Health, demonstrating how creating a health city is not an issue to be siloed. Follow that theme of health’s importance across civic agencies to James Colgrove’s Epidemic City, an analysis of the perspectives and initiatives of the people responsible for the city’s health since the 1960s.
Another thing that cities mean is lots of people crowded together; which can smell bad. Bad smells and foul air (malaria, anyone?) were believed to be a cause of disease in the 19th century. Smell Detectives shows how hard it proved to find the sources of those dangerous odors and explores the larger tension between evolving scientific knowledge and people’s common, olfactory senses.
From across the pond in London is the story of the 1854 cholera epidemic; Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead’s use of interviews and mapping to identify the source as a contaminated water pump—not foul air—and with this the birth of the field of epidemiology and the power of visualizing data. The Ghost Map is a riveting, multidisciplinary tale.
Don’t be so Literal:
- Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag
- In Sickness and in Health: Disease as Metaphor in Art and Popular Wisdom, by Laurinda S. Dixon
- Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, Priscilla Wald
- Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness, Trevor Hoppe
Disease is more than a clinical fact. It’s a concept. Trends go viral. Something cool is sick. There are cancers in the body politic. A cancer survivor herself, author Susan Sontag challenges victim-blaming in her seminal and intense work Illness as Metaphor and its follow-up AIDS and its Metaphors. In Sickness and in Health is a good counterpart, its concentration being on figurative illness through the visual arts and imagery. Many people with AIDs belonged to stigmatized minorities which led to society to link sickness to ‘badness,’ and the criminalizing of illness is not specific to AIDS alone as Trevor Hoppe’s Punishing Disease reveals. In Contagious, Priscilla Wald uses history, journalism, literary and cinematic depictions of disease to describe the “outbreak narrative,” and how getting stuck in this particular storyline and mode of thinking might limit our approach to the next big pandemic.
The Plague, Albert Camus
It’s on every other high school required reading list for a reason; Camus’ masterfully written tale of the town of Oran beset by plague is about death by disease but it’s also a powerful allegory about how we choose to live.