Book review – The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe

8-minute read

The medieval bubonic plague pandemic was a major historical event. But what happened next? To give myself some grounding on this topic, I previously reviewed The Complete History of the Black Death. This provided detailed insights into the spread and mortality caused by the Black Death, which was only the first strike of the Second Plague Pandemic. With that month-long homework exercise in my pocket, I was ready to turn back to the book that send me down this plague-infested rabbit hole in the first place: The World the Plague Made by historian James Belich. One way to characterise this book is that it retells the history of Europe from 1350 onwards as if the plague mattered.

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Book review – The Complete History of the Black Death (Second Edition)

11-minute read

Earlier this year, Princeton University Press published The World the Plague Made. Since I do not know all that much about the medieval plague pandemic known as the Black Death, I innocently said to myself: “let’s do some homework”. Coincidentally, Boydell Press recently published The Complete History of the Black Death by Norwegian emeritus professor of history Ole J. Benedictow, which is a substantially updated version of his 2004 book The Black Death 1346–1353: The Complete History. Just a little bit of homework… Little did I know that I would spend the next 38(!) days soldiering my way through this tome, which is an unprecedentedly long time for me. Did this exercise result in a deeper understanding of the plague? On many levels, yes, but with some caveats, and a note that this book is not light reading.

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Book review – Scorched Earth: Environmental Warfare as a Crime against Humanity and Nature

7-minute read

Whenever war breaks out, our concern is understandably first and foremost with the human casualties. The tremendous environmental toll tends to take a backseat. However, environmental destruction can and has long been an effective military strategy. In Scorched Earth, historian Emmanuel Kreike surveys four centuries of environmental warfare around the globe to show it is neither uniquely Western nor the unwanted love child of modern science and technology.

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Book review – Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

10-minute read

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been one of the big questions. The default assumption for many has been zoonosis: a natural spillover event where an infectious disease jumps from an animal host into the human population. But could it have escaped from one of the several virology laboratories in Wuhan? Initially cast aside as a conspiracy theory, the idea has slowly been gaining credibility. Viral is a disconcerting book that considers what we know so far. Though the smoking gun remains missing, the circumstantial evidence raises several red flags. Given the increasingly heated and polarised discussion around this topic, I started reviewing this book with some trepidation.

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Book review – Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History

7-minute read

It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

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Book review – Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live

7-minute read

So far, most of the books I have read on the COVID-19 pandemic have either been of the backwards-looking, how-did-we-get-here type, or have dealt with practical virological, epidemiological, or immunological details. I picked up Apollo’s Arrow as it promised a forward-looking perspective while drawing parallels with past pandemics. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and sociologist directing the Human Nature Lab in Yale, got drafted into working on the pandemic from the start, tracking the spread of the virus, and sat at the bedside of many dying patients while working as a hospice doctor in New York. I believe we need to hear these frontline stories.

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Book review – How to Make a Vaccine: An Essential Guide for COVID-19 & Beyond

7-minute read

A pandemic is probably a good moment to understand how vaccines are developed and how they work. This short and educational primer offers relevant background information on viruses and the immune system, and goes into much more detail on vaccines than other recent introductory books. How to Make a Vaccine is written by immunologist John Rhodes who brings to the table both his background in academic research on vaccines and his experience working for GlaxoSmithKline from 2001 to 2007. His narrative approach of choice is to tell the story of viruses, immunology, and vaccines through the history of scientific discovery.

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Book review – A Planet of Viruses (Third Edition)

5-minute read

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many publishers have seen an opportunity to reissue previously published books on viruses and pandemics. As a reader, it is always difficult to know whether you are actually getting any updated content beyond the obligatory new preface or afterword, or whether this is just a quick cash-grab. Fortunately, the third edition of Carl Zimmer’s famous virology primer A Planet of Viruses is here to prove those suspicions wrong.

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Book review – Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity

6-minute read

Last year August, science writer Ed Yong put it very nicely: “you see, the immune system is very complicated“. Yet, understanding it is important to understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic might evolve, why we are faced with certain public health measures, and how we can hope to combat the pandemic with tests and vaccines. In this brief book, physics and chemistry professor Arup K. Chakraborty and immunologist Andrey S. Shaw offer a general introduction to how our immune system reacts to viruses, and how our medical inventions help out.

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Book review – Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

6-minute read

What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey—his metaphor for humanity—through seven revolutions and three million years.

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