As much as I love reading pop science, for some reason I find these books the hardest to write and discuss. Is it because I’m afraid of summarizing them poorly or inaccurately? I have no idea. Minis it is!
In Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic, journalist Nina Burleigh walks through a year plus of the fucked-up response the United States mounted to the Covid-19 pandemic (originally released in May of last year, an updated version was published this summer. This never ends). Her tone is one of frustration and utter exhaustion, which: who can blame her. This manifests in snarkiness, which I enjoyed, but I know won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I would say if you’re ready to start dipping a toe into pandemic analysis but still feeling somewhat wary, this would be a great entry point.
Burleigh provides useful insights into why things went wrong, focusing on government response and the rampant capitalism that put profit over people. This may sound grim, but if you’re even remotely interested, this is extremely important material and Burleigh has made it very accessible. It’s enraging, but that’s even more reason to understand what happened, because we didn’t change anything and this may not be the last pandemic we see in our lifetimes.
The highlight (if a horrifying, mortifying one) here is Burleigh’s dive into vaccine history and the American tendency towards an “anti-expertise sentiment.” And although I feel like I’ve read a lot on conspiracies and conspiracy theory culture by this point, she gives a worth-reading treatment to this topic as it pertains to beliefs around vaccines and Covid.
Lawrence Wright offers a gentler, and perhaps broader, look at the pandemic’s missteps in The Plague Year, and this is definitely a great companion read, but it’s much angrier. Burleigh packs this with statistics that really hammer home how off our response was and what people and government departments are responsible for that (take some wild guesses).
I didn’t realize, for example, how many of the leading figures, including Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, and Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar, are strongly religious, and evangelical faith may have influenced decision-making, a very uncomfortable thought to sit with.
And then there’s just the old villain that is capitalism as we saw it play out at its ugliest in 2020:
The pandemic has proven that market principles can’t be applied to health care. The principles of supply and demand don’t work when individuals will literally pay anything to stay alive, and when we are all made vulnerable by the vulnerabilities of any one of us. Wouldn’t the people gasping for breath in the hallways of maxed-out California hospitals have signed over every dime they had in the bank to get the “cocktail” that was infused into Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani?
Burleigh provides entertaining and hard-hitting analysis of what happened and which flawed US systems and policy allowed it to, and putting it in clear, easy to absorb examples. This is one of those books I was constantly quoting aloud to my husband in shock and horror. Upsetting but well worth the read.
published August 23, 2022 by Seven Stories Press. Used or new @SecondSale.com
Now for something lighter after I’ve gotten myself worked up in a big angry rage just thinking about this stuff: Rachel Feltman’s Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex delivers on exactly what the title promises. It’s a fun to read, accessible and inclusive look at topics around the biology and very weird history of sex.
It’s not that long and thus not as in-depth as you might expect such a topic to be, but that made it feel all the more readable. The tone is light and humorous (we’ll come back to that) and Feltman, Executive Editor at Popular Science, emphasizes a message of “Everything Weird Is Normal—Everything Normal Is Weird.” Basically, as long as things are between consenting adults, it’s fine and “normal”, has been done before, and isn’t anything you should feel weird about. Wait till you hear what James Joyce was into!
It covers a lot of myth-busting, including of some surprising topics, like around STIs, and Feltman is adept at picking out the most interesting bits of history to build the book around. However shocking or weird you thought old-timey beliefs about sex were, they’re more shocking and weird than that.
Now the humor: although I initially enjoyed it and it’s what makes the reading light and quickly paced, it gets old very fast. The jokes start to grate because it feels like one had to be made every couple of sentences. It becomes exhausting and many are groan-worthy. I don’t recommend reading this straight through, or without switching off with something else.
I also think that a lot of this material has been covered in some iteration elsewhere, so it may not be as fascinating if you’ve read other pop biology or similar titles. But for a light read with tons of trivia-worthy bits of info, this works.
published May 17, 2022 by Bold Type Books. Used or new @SecondSale.com
I received advance copies courtesy of their respective publishers for unbiased review.