One of my favorite books: Ghost Map

643px-Snow-cholera-map-1Ghost Map :The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson, read by Alan Sklar

This isn’t a book review, and I don’t plan to do book reviews in the future, but I do want to write about books, especially the ones I keep relistening to and getting more out of them each time.  Especially when I find myself appreciating them more over time because of other books.

I’m currently listening to A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger, read by Kevin Conway.  Similar books read recently are The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison, Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias by Jane Velez-Mitchell, Every Breath You Take by Ann Rule, read by Blair Brown, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, read by Scott Brick and The Disappearance by J. F. Freedman.  (although I haven’t finished the latter and probably won’t)  This is a diverse mix of fiction and non-fiction, but there’s a certain pattern they share.  Other examples are The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, The Great Fire by Jim Murphy, Columbine by Dave Cullen.

The core of what these books are about could be summed up in a few pages, but their authors have made them into entire books.  Ghost Map is especially remarkable in that its core is just one map.  The rest of the book is not only the events behind it and consequences of it, and the biographies of the people behind it, Heroes of Intellect, but also tangential bits of history and science that are part of the puzzle and each fascinating in themselves.  I admit, I may find this more exciting than most people because I just love to make charts and maps and infographics like this map that show data correlations at a glance and fantasize that one of mine with have as great an impact as The Ghost Map.  (see my other blog  But, even apart from that, the book is amazing, presenting pieces of the puzzle in a way that’s entertaining and logical.

While some of the other examples I’ve mentioned are very good books, none have the logic and coherence of Ghost MapA Death in Belmont is about a murder in a suburb of Boston at the time of the Boston Strangler and and Roy Smith, a black man from Mississippi who was convicted for it.  But it starts with how the author’s parents once employed Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, including homey little details.  It’s relevant to bring in the Boston Strangler, because the murder was at first thought to be one of his, but the autobiography is less so.

Relevant, too, is the biography of Roy Smith and his family, but the choice of details included are . . . Or is it OCD of me to look for relevance in the amusing trivial included?  For example, Roy had a brother named “Coach” which the family pronounced as two syllables “Co- Aitch” because the mother worked for a football coach who was a local celebrity, and it was not uncommon in the South at that time to give their children names like “States Rights” and “Ex-Senator Webb.”  Only the way it’s said in the book is much longer and more circuitous.  And then there’s one very odd bit about the colorful biography of a bartender who testified for the prosecution that he served the accused a drink that has no relevance that I can detect.

Some books pad with what I think of as “soap opera.”  This is a pet peeve of mine I expect to write about elsewhere (for example, it’s a key reason why I like “Flowers for Algernon” as a short story, but not as a novel, why I like the Dexter books but not the tv series.) Since I’ve been learning about Asperger’s, I’ve been wondering if what I derisively call “soap opera” and give as a reason I dislike things, other people would call “relationships” and give as a reason they like them.  For example, the difference between the first 3 Harry Potter books and the others.  I like the first 3 books because they’re primarily about magic.  I dislike the others because they’re about adolescents.  I read someone else saying almost the opposite, that the first 3 books were stories but the rest were novels.

Some pad with autobiography, as in A Death in Belmont.  I find it especially annoying in science books, where the author appears to think I’m interested in why he became a science writer.  But I can fast-forward through those parts without missing anything.  In the case of both true and fictional crime, I’m very interested in the biography of the criminal, even going back generations.  I’m less interested in the biography of the victims, and actively dislike touching stories about how the survivors (of crime or natural disasters) cope afterwards.

(Ironically, if I were to write a book about my own Ghost Map — — it would probably be at least 50% autobiography.  Just because I don’t like to read it doesn’t mean that I don’t like to write it.)

I find very annoying how some books of this type are hard to follow and the connections so hard to see, because of the order of presentation.  Exposed told a really fascinating story, but in an infuriatingly choppy way, going from trial, to the victim’s childhood, to the arrest to the murderer’s childhood, back to the trial, then to how the two met.  (I probably have the actual presentation order wrong, but it was something like that.)  Maybe it’s easier to follow that sort of thing in a printed book than in audio.

I need to relisten to Ghost Map to get the taste of these others out of my mouth.

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