Title: Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It
Publisher: Touchstone [original edition 1999, this edition 2005]
No. of Pages: 338
I don’t think there’s many people reading this blog who are looking for my increasingly rare forays into non-fiction but I promised myself that I would record something about every book I finished this year. I’ll keep it short though.
In case the long title doesn’t make it clear this book is about the scientists of various generations and disciplines who, in combination, have searched for, and found, the virus that caused the world’s last great flu pandemic. The book starts off with a short description of the worst impacts of the flu (in America) and gives a potted history of major disease outbreaks through history before stepping through the many decades of steps that were taken by a variety of scientists to understand what cased that pandemic. Perhaps the most well known of these steps was the extraction of the virus from the preserved bodies of people who had died in the pandemic and whose bodies had been accidentally preserved in the permafrost of Alaska.
Writing entertainingly about science is not, I assume, a walk in the park and Kolata (a Science journalist) does a good job of balancing the need to create an engaging, understandable narrative for non scientists with the need not to treat readers like simpletons (which happens all too often these days). There’s clearly a load of research in the book and while her conclusions are not always in line with other reading I’ve done on the subject of the pandemic itself they’re solidly backed up. And what is science if not the posing of theories and questioning of them? I’d have liked to see more reliance on primary sources and archival material rather than the delayed first-hand accounts and newspaper reports Kolata uses but all in all it’s a good read with more excitement and drama than some fiction I’ve read.
It’s purely coincidental that I read this book right now, when flu fear is again on the international radar, but it did remind me once again that our collective reliance on 30-second sound bites from mainstream media for our understanding of what’s going on in our world is a dangerous path to tread. Truly understanding how things work tends to reduce the fear and panic they can induce, and it’s a shame our media and governments don’t focus more on the reasoned, factual information of the kind provided by Kolata (and many others).
My rating 4/5