Saturday, September 8, 2018

Mini Reviews: Very Good Lives || The Ghost Map

Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination by J.K. Rowling

Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 74
Publication Date: April 2015
How can we embrace failure? And how can we use our imagination to better both ourselves and others?

Drawing from stories of her own post-graduate years, the world famous author addresses some of life's most important questions with acuity and emotional force.

Likes: If you have a Harry Potter fan in your life who is graduating soon, please get them this book. They’ll probably love it. I think it would make a perfect graduation gift. It’s inspirational and full of bold, attention-grabbing black and red illustrations.

This tiny book contains the text of a speech that Rowling gave at Harvard in 2008. In it, she discusses what she learned from living in poverty and “failing” at everything she was supposed to do in life. She also talks about imagination and how it allows us to empathize with people whose experiences we don’t share. She ends the speech by saying that we need imaginative, well-educated, influential people (like Harvard students) to amplify the voices of people who society overlooks.

Rowling has a unique perspective on success because she’s been at both ends of society’s success meter. Soon after finishing college, she was a nearly homeless single mother. Now she’s one of the richest people on the planet. She knows what it’s like to be overlooked, and what it’s like to have everybody looking at you. I love that she encourages people to recognize their privilege and use their success to help others.

Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way behind your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.Very Good Lives

Dislikes: The book only contains illustrations and the text of the speech. There isn’t any additional material. The book would be a fun, pretty gift, but if you’re looking for the depth and detail of a memoir or self-help book, you won’t find it here.

I love the illustrations, but I don’t like that some of the text is printed in red. I’m not a fan of colorful text.

The Bottom Line: If you love J.K. Rowling, this is a nice addition to your book collection. If you only care about the speech, you can find YouTube videos of Rowling giving it. You don’t have to buy the book.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 299
Publication Date: December 2006

The Ghost Map takes place in the summer of 1854. A devastating cholera outbreak seizes London just as it is emerging as a modern city: more than 2 million people packed into a ten-mile circumference, a hub of travel and commerce, teeming with people from all over the world, continually pushing the limits of infrastructure that's outdated as soon as it's updated. Dr. John Snow—whose ideas about contagion had been dismissed by the scientific community—is spurred to intense action when the people in his neighborhood begin dying. With enthralling suspense, Johnson chronicles Snow's day-by-day efforts, as he risks his own life to prove how the epidemic is being spread.

When he creates the map that traces the pattern of outbreak back to its source, Dr. Snow didn't just solve the most pressing medical riddle of his time. He ultimately established a precedent for the way modern city-dwellers, city planners, physicians, and public officials think about the spread of disease and the development of the modern urban environment.

Likes: Throughout history, there have been some extremely brave people. The doctors and cholera investigators in this book should definitely be put in the “extremely brave” category. In 1850s London, no one knew what caused the cholera outbreak. People were either dying in droves or frantically trying to escape the city. A few researchers ignored their instinct to run from the disease. They ventured deeper into London to find the cause of cholera. I enjoyed reading the stories of the investigators and how they methodically uncovered the way the disease spread.

I think the moral of this book is to not cling so tightly to your ideas that you ignore or dismiss anything that doesn’t fit with your worldview. You could be missing something important. In the 1800s, scientists believed that cholera came from bad-smelling air. They refused to listen to any alternate theories. By refusing to be open-minded, they did a lot of damage to humans and to the environment. Even though the cholera outbreak happened a long time ago, modern people can still learn from it.

Superstition, then and now, is not just a threat to the truth. It’s also a threat to national security.The Ghost Map

Dislikes: I only like narrative nonfiction. I hate reading textbooks. From the synopsis, this book sounds narrative, like it has a plot. The author does tell the story of the cholera researchers, but the plot is broken up by long, tedious chapters about sewer construction and city planning. I got bored enough that I skimmed parts of it.

The Bottom Line: I wanted to read about people solving a scientific mystery. The mystery turns out to be only a small part of the book. The rest of it is a textbook. I was mostly bored.


  1. Yeah, I don't like nonfiction when it turns out to be too nonfiction-y (or textbook-y). I have to be in the right mood for nonfiction. That's true with any genre, though, I suppose.

    1. I really like nonfiction, but I tend to procrastinate it because I’m afraid that every book will be a textbook. (Even though I know that’s not true.) Some nonfiction is spectacularly boring.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. I prefer narrative nonfiction, too. Too bad The Ghost Map turned out to be very dry, it's a fascinating topic!

    1. It is! I wish it had been more of a story and less of an info dump.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  3. I remember really liking Ghost Map, but it is more than possible that I skimmed the dull parts. That's the beauty of reading non-assigned nonfiction!

  4. Turns out cholera is caused by contaminated water, and thus affects poor areas the most. Strange that. And a lot more preventable than malicious miasmas ;)