November 2007

The Great Influenza by John M. BarryMy wife (and others) have been poking fun at me for some time now about my reading selection, but it wasn’t until I got about halfway through this latest tome when I realized just how weird my book selection has been the past half year or so. I’ve read books about what would happen to the world if humans disappeared, a poison gas attack, the assassination of a president, and a cholera epidemic. Needless to say, following it up with a book on the one of the worst pandemics in recorded human history seemed like a painful frosting on a depressing cake, but The Great Influenza was nonetheless next on my reading list.

As it turns out, this book by John M. Barry was a fascinating and often completely heartbreaking read. In terms of numbers killed, the estimates range from 40 all the way up to 100 million, and this damage was done in the incredibly short time period of roughly 18 months between the years of 1918 and 1919. The scale and scope of this particular flu was pretty much unprecedented, and due to bad decisions made by several different layers of both government and local officials, it spread completely out of control in a country that was trying desperately to maintain a patriotic fortitude while going into battle of the first world war.

Obviously, with so many people affected, this influenza wasn’t strictly limited to the United States, and while this book focuses in on domestic efforts to both combat (and seemingly ignore at the same time) the outbreak, it also spends a great deal of time talking about how it affected and spread around the world as well.

In leading up to the actual discussion of the pandemic itself, the book devotes entire chapters to the advancement of science and medicine in both Europe and the United States during the time period, giving a good background of how much progress was made in a short time. It’s this type of information that really makes the book an excellent read, capturing just how much progress was made in a short time (and under some fairly constricted circumstances in some cases).
Although it doesn’t go into great detail, the book touches on the fact that a pandemic flu could happen again at some point, and how we would be both better equipped (the evolution of science and industry to manufacture vaccines at a higher pace) and worse off (the greater prevalence of national and even world travel aiding the spread of the virus) in the event that it did.

In the end, the book was equal parts depressing and enlightening, with enough data and historical information to inform. With terms like “HN51” and “bird flu” being thrown around every six months or so with sometimes panicked overtones, this is a good book for historical reference.

The World Without Us by Alan WeismanWhen I first read about the concept of The World Without Us, I was intrigued immediately. For some reason or another, I’ve had a strange sort of obsession with everything from the apocalypse to zombie films the past couple of years. Throw in a bit of true treehugger-style guilt about my (and the rest of humankind’s) footprint on the world itself, and this book by Alan Weisman shot to the top of my wish list when I read about it being released.

Essentially, the title tells the tale, as the book basically takes on all the different angles of what would happen to the world if humans were to completely disappear. Weisman doesn’t specify how this would happen (to keep everyone happy he mentions everything from the Christian description of Rapture to a virus that wipes out humankind), but that’s not really the point. Instead, he focuses on the decay of human-built infrastructures, chemical compounds that we’ve created and how long it takes for them to break down, animals we’ve displaced (and pushed to near extinction), and ecosystems we’ve changed and/or destroyed.

While there are a few hypotheticals, the great thing about the book is that Weisman has really done his research. In many cases, he’s had the ability to study different things firsthand, as in the Exclusion Zone of Chernobyl, which includes several cities that were basically left completely abandoned by humans and the humans took over. He also takes a look at the demilitarized zone in Korea, and in these places one can see the steady advance of nature as it reclaims space slowly at first but then with wide flourishes that are sometimes hard to imagine. One of the most fascinating sections of the book deals with what would happen to a city like New York, New York, which is built largely upon marshlands that require non-stop water pumps to function lest basements fill with water and support beams buckle and surrender to corrosion.

Of course, there is a lot to be depressed about in the book as well. In a chapter titled “Polymers Are Forever,” Weisman describes a state-sized (Texas, to be nearly exact) swirling mass of constantly breaking-down discarded plastic in the Pacific ocean that is not only threatening aquatic life in that particular area, but slowly filtering into the microscopic level as the plastic breaks down to such a small level that algae can ingest it (which then in turn moves up the food chain and eventually could cause what is essentially a bottom-up choking-off of the food chain).

Like many books I’ve read lately, The World Without Us made me think about how I live my life personally, and the changes I can make to affect at least the small part of the world around me. It’s not a book that speaks specifically to the individual footprint of a single person in this world, but it makes you feel like a vital cog in the larger scheme of things, and for that I would definitely recommend it.