Review: Plagues and Peoples.

“From their inception, therefore, both faiths had to deal with sudden death by disease as one of the conspicuous facts of human life. Consequently, it is not altogether surprising that both religions taught that death was a release from pain, and a blessed avenue of entry upon a delightful afterlife where loved ones would be reunited, and earthly injustice and pains amply compensated for.”

Plagues and Peoples” by Wiliam H. McNeill

Nothing makes a great lunchtime read like a book about disease! William H. NcNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, originally published in 1975, serves as sort of a catch-all brief look of the history of epidemics and endemics throughout history…though, after reading it, I’m still not entirely sure what the difference between the two of them is. Not to jump right to the critiques, but I feel that was the major flaw in this book. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m reading this book nearly forty years past its prime, but none of the information reached me as anything fairly knew. Much of the presentation felt rather dry and rambling, and I didn’t really get very interested in the subject matter until the very last chapter, where McNeill dives into more recent centuries and the medical advances in curing or curbing plague-like epidemics…or is it endemics?

I did find some of the attention to the spread of these iconic diseases through the Asian continent fairly interesting, but, for the most part, I felt that this book didn’t have a lot to offer someone who already has a general outlook on the spread of plagues and disease throughout our history. I felt myself longing for a few other books I’ve read on the subject matter, most notably Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, which is a brilliant look at the spread of cholera in London in 1854.

Perhaps therein lies the problem with Plagues and People. It’s a very general, incredibly broad book, in a relatively short amount of space. We only get the larger picture, a picture that has, for the most part, been viewed many times. Conversely, Johnson’s book picks a single epidemic and explores it intimately. Not that I’m saying I’d want to get too intimate with any of the microorganisms of McNeill’s study, but that connection was definitely lacking here.

Books read: 018/100.


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