While I don’t often write about nonfiction here, when I read a nonfiction book I really love, I just have to share the fun of it, and such a book is Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, by Jennifer Wright. Now, I realize that title makes it sound like a real downer, though for those of us (like me) who are fascinated by outbreaks of terrible diseases there’s nothing wrong with a book about history’s worst plagues. This book, though, is far from a downer, even if you’re not one of us, because the author has a knack for describing even the most horrible things with wit and vividness.
I confess, I put this book on hold by the title alone, but when I got it and realized who the author was, I was even more delighted to have it. Jennifer Wright also wrote a very funny book called It Ended Badly, about famous breakups. You might say that writing humorously about the horrible things people do to each other after a romantic breakup is easier than writing humorously about dreadful diseases, but I’d say it’s a close call, and Jennifer Wright’s ability to see the lighter side of even the most serious things is a real selling point for me.
This book starts with the decline of the Roman Empire, and specifically the Antonine Plague of C.E. 165 – 180, showing us how the ravages of that plague were responsible, at least partly, for the fall of the empire to the barbarians who’d been knocking at the gates of the empire for decades before that without effect (she’s very funny in describing the German efforts to defeat Roman legions). She also starts with another theme of the book: the way a government responds to a plague can be as important as medical advances in limiting the worst effects of that plague.
Of course she hits all the famous plagues: the Black Death (one of my favorites) of the 14th century, the Great Influenza of 1918 (sometimes erroneously called the Spanish Flu, and you’ll learn from this book why it’s called the Spanish Flu and why that’s inaccurate), cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox. She touches on some other diseases you might not think of as plagues, such as leprosy, syphilis and polio, and even (this is a little bit of a stretch, I admit, but she writes so well I’m willing to cut her some slack on this) lobotomies. She even has a section toward the back where she keeps the pictures you might not otherwise want to see (they can be pretty gruesome), just to give everybody what they want. She goes into some detail, salacious and otherwise, about how the diseases were spread and what people did to stop them, and she is always fascinating and, yes, even funny.
If you’d like to read a slightly different perspective on western history, if you’re curious about different diseases of the past and the present and how people reacted to them (from the truly terrifying treatments for the Black Death to the compassionate treatment of the sufferers from St. Vitus’ dance), or if you’d just like a good read, check out Get Well Soon. You won’t regret it.