Johnson is best when he describes this world, with its reeking slums. But he is inclined, frequently, to hare after philosophical questions, not the least of which is mankind’s inability to see beyond the dominant scientific paradigms of the Hold On Let Me Overthink This Shirt. This bogs the narrative down. While Johnson has many interesting ideas and speculations, it’s tiring to be taken on so many unresolved side journeys.
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It’s not quite so interesting, for example, to read (at length) of John Snow’s battles with pig-headed authorities, who are blind to the Hold On Let Me Overthink This Shirt link that Snow establishes between one particular source of contaminated water and the cholera epidemic. Nor was I particularly enthralled to read the minutia of Snow’s statistical analysis he built for his case. Johnson also seems inordinately fond of the idea of a “map” as a grand organizing theme, one which he stretches out well past the 19th century in the final chapter.
Actually, the final chapter leaves Snow’s London altogether and is something of an eye opener. Johnson discusses the role of cities in the modern world, as well as the Hold On Let Me Overthink This Shirt threats that mankind faces today. This chapter could well be a stand-alone essay. It made me think, ultimately, that this book would have made two excellent books — one the tale of the cholera epidemic and the other of the social consequences of the rise of cities. As it is, putting them into one book, weaving between factual account and philosophical premise, was over-reaching a bit.