March 1, 2013 by magpiemenina
Dear readers, it has been quite a while since I’ve blogged a book review. I assure you, it is not because I haven’t been reading (I have!), but I wanted to refrain from beleaguering you with review after review of books about the bubonic/septicemic/pneumonic plague.
I frequently read about diseases (mostly plague), for whatever morbid reason. Having heard several months ago an interview on National Public Radio with the authors of a book about rabies, I decided to read it, since I don’t know anything more than the usual about the disease.
Well, I still don’t. Here’s a rather scathing book review of Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (New York: Viking Penguin, 2012).
First of all, let’s talk about the title. I have come away from the text still unclear about what makes rabies any more diabolical than any other disease. Most virulent diseases, especially zoonotic diseases (viral or bacterial), are pretty darn diabolical. I vote for the plague, personally, but I’m partial.
Also, and more importantly, this book is the Tristram Shandy of disease books. It spends most of the time talking about anything but rabies. The authors would have been better off writing the two books they clearly wanted to write: 1) A History of Dogs, Man’s Best Friend who Sometimes Becomes Rather Scary, and 2) Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies in Popular Culture Throughout Time. There are eight chapters, excluding the introduction and conclusion. Two are overwhelmingly about vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Three are mostly about rabies. One is kind of about rabies, but mostly about Louis Pasteur and all of his work (not just on rabies), and the discovery of vaccines. (Let me be clear: I appreciate background information, but this book does not understand how to provide it concisely or usefully.) Two are mostly about dogs and wolves and wolf-like behavior. Don’t get me wrong, there are sprinklings of rabies throughout, and I’m sure the authors thought they were writing about rabies, but that brings me to the second point.
The authors make a tremendous number of faulty conclusions and connections. They fail to convincingly connect the vampires, werewolves, and zombies to rabies. They attribute the underlying fear in Gothic stories and the fears of things that go bump in the night to concern over rabies (I think they do, at least – it is hard to know what they are concluding at some points). Those fears could just as easily be attributed to primal, evolutionary ‘memories’ from our evolutionary history of getting attacked and dragged off by leopards to be deposited in karstic caves in what is now South Africa and so forth, though. In fact, after pages and pages of vampire discussion, they concede that “the fast zombie is not a rabid zombie, per se. These films are not in any sense about rabies, or about the fear of rabies; or, rather, if they are, it’s only in the sense that the endorphins we feel on the treadmill are ‘about’ the predator (not) nipping at our Nikes” (163). What? Why, then, go on about zombies except for the fact that a lot of people will probably read this book because it talks about zombies? What does “the predator (not) nipping at our Nikes” have anything to do with rabies in particular as opposed to prehistoric leopards without rabies but with nasty, big, pointy teeth?
There is also a great deal of circular reasoning that goes on (in particular, please see chapter 3, “A Virus with Teeth?”). They also attribute a number of happenings to rabies that are frequently presented by other authors (and much more convincingly so) as resulting from depopulation during and after the plague epidemic of 1348, particularly feral children and dogs eating corpses (68). Certainly there is a human fear of the savage animal inside everyone and in our beloved pets, but to attribute it solely and dramatically to rabies at any point other than during the Victorian era seems like overkill. (Actually, I find the argument that fear of the savage animal inside during the Victorian era stems from reactions to Darwinism much more compelling, so it is still overkill.)
Certainly the Victorians were afraid of rabies, and this was the best chance for the authors to make a convincing argument. As a research assistant in my undergraduate career, I had the pleasure of perusing the 1880s issues of the British medical journal The Lancet. I can vouch that hydrophobia (a symptom of advanced rabies) certainly seized the mind of the medical community and public (along with spontaneous human combustion). Sadly, this chapter is, like all the others, full of dubious conclusions, meandering digressions, and the history of the dog. The authors fail to make adequate use of contemporary writings to bolster the argument that rabies played a tremendous role in the Victorian psyche (though not in the way that they argue, using Jane Eyre and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which fit far more nicely into the Darwinian fear category).
Now I am rambling. Really, I could pull apart this book all day, and did so in the margins of my copy. I hate to say it, but don’t bother reading it unless you are interested in learning more about the history of dogs or zombies, werewolves, and vampires. Even in those cases, you can probably find better books on those topics. The number of grandiose and unsupported statements, non sequiturs, and distracting digressions and red herrings meandering back to a conclusion in no way reached during those digressions is truly impressive. No freshman College Writing I student could have gotten this past their professor without having the sections about zombies, werewolves, and vampires, not to mention the general ramblings about dogs, cut, with a stern warning to stay on topic. The book represents an utter failure of editing, stating the thesis, and supporting the thesis. Its best value surely lies squarely in functioning as an example of a book written engagingly while simultaneously neglecting the most basic requirements of nonfiction writing (including a failure to cite information in the endnotes, but I’ll spare you that).