26 April 2011

Book Review: Pox

Title: Pox: An American History
Author: Michael Willrich
Publisher/Year: Penguin Press / 2011
Date Finished:
Source/Format: TLC Tours / Print

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

The Short and Sweet of It
A look at smallpox around the turn of the century, Pox explores the history of the disease and of vaccination, as well as the influence smallpox had on the role of government in public health.

A Bit of a Ramble
Holy information overload Batman. By the end of the second chapter, I could feel little bits of information poking at the far reaches of my brainal space....and it was mildly irritating, I must admit. The subject matter itself is fascinating, in part because it is so sensational. The history of vaccination - and the horror stories accompanying it - are what I term "intellectually gruesome", meaning it's interesting on a brainy level while simultaneously appealing to the more basic need for blood, pus, and guts.

Despite my fascination with the subject though, I found myself getting a bit bored from time to time as Willrich piled a stack of facts too big for my small brain to process. At a few points, the accumulation of numbers, percentages and statistics, which were taking page space away from the more sensational anecdotes, had me setting the book aside. I don't want to give the impression, however, that it was some sort of prurient need for graphic nastiness which kept me from enjoying the more fact-based sections of the book. A larger part of the problem for me was the repetition of the same ideas - or the same story structure - throughout the book. I honestly believe the book could have been cut by many, many pages.

What kept me going though - and not skimming - was Willrich's writing. I really enjoyed his style, and at times found myself more interested in how he was constructing his sentences, in his word choice and pacing, than I was in what he was actually saying. Then the next super-interesting tidbit or anecdote would pop up, and I would once again be engrossed in the story. It was definitely a roller coaster ride of enjoyment. Some sections or chapters held my interest obsessively while others had my eyes glassing over.

My ultimate judgment is positive, and I would recommend this book to anyone interested at all in the subject. The sections of the novel which really engaged me were more prevalent than those which had me stifling a few yawns.

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  1. I would have recommended editing too except that I think that the author, as a historian, was trying to compile a complete chronicle. So for me the question was, well, okay, but does the average lay person want to read through a complete chronicle? Probably not, but I think it would not be difficult to pick and choose one's anecdotes in the book and still gain from the story.

  2. Sounds like a workout! And like all workouts, you have to stay focused on the end goal, and even though you feel good to have done it, in the end you are tired. I've read books like this. But it is hard not to be intrigued by the subject.

  3. I completely agree with the way you descrbied the book! Definitely fascinating at times, but the other times had too many numbers and lots of info overload.

  4. I also fell in and out with this book. I think you hit the nail right on the head when you say that there was just too much information between scanty titillating fact. I think that as a whole the book was a little to long and dry, but certain parts were very interesting to contemplate. Great review on this one. It seems that all the reviews I have seen seem to mirror the same impressions of this book.

  5. Seems like the writer was trying to straddle speaking to both academics and the average lay reader.

  6. I like the term "intellectually gruesome" - it is so very fitting. I'm glad you stuck with this one even though it was sometimes information overload ... sounds like it was quite fascinating!


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