March 2007

The Ghost Map by Steven JohnsonI picked up The Ghost Map for TG as a gift awhile back and she had read it and highly enjoyed it. After finishing a book on World War II, I decided that I needed something a bit lighter, so of course I turned to a book about cholera epidemics in England in the nineteenth century.

Okay, so it’s not exactly light reading, but nothing like millions upon millions of bodies being ploughed asunder, so I decided to check it out.

I hadn’t read anything by Steven Johnson before, but after zooming through The Ghost Map, that will probably have to change. As mentioned above, the focal point of the book is about the cholera epidemics that ravaged England in the 1800’s, but it goes off in so many directions (in well-written ways) that it feels like a real smorgasboard of information. Johnson not only talks about the triumphs of science over superstition, but population density and city planning, information design, sociology, and just plain history of the actual events as well. He weaves all of these things together in logical, and even entertaining ways, introducing the “heroes” of the story and following the arcs of their discoveries like a thriller in some ways.

Like most great books that I’ve read, information comes at you in digestible amounts and about a variety of different angles. It was only the second book I finished this year, but got me excited about reading more again.

The Second World War by John KeeganAs I’ve mentioned many times before on this site, my knowledge of world history is seriously lacking and I’ve been trying to somewhat remedy that situation by reading different books to fill in the gaps that my education thusfar has left gaping open. I’d read The First World War by John Keegan later last year and thought it was a great condensed history, so I decided to follow it up with his book on World War II.

Just like his other book, this one was both fairly concise and at the same time absolutely packed to the seams with information. It literally covers all the facets of the war, including all the major and minor ground battles in Europe and Africa and all the naval battles in the Pacific and everywhere else. The politics leading into the war and during the war are covered as well, although obviously not as much as they would be in other books.

Reading through the book and refreshing my somewhat sketchy history on the subject, the thing that really stuck out to me were the technological advances made in such a short amount of time that would tip the balance in one direction and then back in another. In several cases the Germans hung on to battles beause of their superiority in terms of tanks, but once the American war machine was kicked into full gear, it was pretty much a matter of time before it ground down the enemy.

Of course, it goes without saying that the human loss was astounding. I think part of the reason that it took me so long to finish the book was that I was once again reminded in detail how many people died on all sides. In combination with my general pessimistic view of world events, I could only manage a certain amount of pages per day without feeling kicked in the stomach several times.

That said, reading the book also made me want to read more in-depth books on different facets of World War II, which I plan on doing at some point in the future.