29 September 2008

richard preston - the hot zone

the hot zone || richard preston || 2.0/5.0 stars

ok, so this was a book that i should have read in high school. maybe middle school. but i never had, and since it had been sitting on my shelf for well over two years, i figured it was probably time to finally pick it up. public health is my field, after all, and i kept feeling guilty for not having read one of our few claims to pop culture lore.

it took less than a week, and it was pretty painful. interesting, sure, but not quite my usual read. i feel like a snob saying that it isn't a smart book, but frankly, that's how it felt. i think i would have loved it ten years ago, but reading it now, and suffering through really basic (and often poor) descriptions of basic biologic processes, it was almost a chore to read.

perhaps the most difficult part of reading this book was how much the author anthropomorphized the ebola virus. sure, you can certainly let yourself believe that viruses (or more generally, species as a whole on the evolutionary level) are actively thinking and strategically planning their attack, but in the end this a false notion. viruses don't plan their mutations any more than the finches of galapagos got together and decided who would grow longer beaks or shorter legs. this concept is one of the most common bastardizations of the natural selection idea, and it doesn't help science for authors such as mr. preston to further the idea.

though i understand the dramatic appeal of such a slant, and the need to sell books, i think its irresponsible of a "science author" who has won several awards for his efforts. evolution works solely through chance mutations and luck of the draw - let's not muddle the story by pretending otherwise. its unfairly up for debate as it is.

my conclusions? i feel better having read it - a little more informed of what the lay population understands about epidemiology and outbreak investigations. less than impressed by the writing and the spin on the virus, though, and looking forward to cracking open a new book.

No comments: