The Next Pandemic, the End of Men, Edward Curtis and More Recent Books Worth Reading

The scariest thing about deadly diseases is how little we know about them

Spillover cover
Courtesy W. W. Norton and Company

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
by David Quammen
Perhaps the scariest thing about the many deadly diseases explored in this vivacious new book is how little we understand. From the decaying body of a possibly Ebola-infected ape in a forest in central Africa, three bees rose up and stung a worker gathering samples. “Can the Ebola virus travel on the stinger of a bee?” asks Quammen. “No one knows.” What we do know, at least slightly better, is the havoc that Ebola, the Hendra virus, rabies and other nasty pathogens can wreak: families struck down, industries destroyed, the outbreak’s unfortunate locale forever associated with death. Quammen’s subject is the highly prevalent zoonoses—diseases that can be transmitted between animals, especially between animals and human beings. “Spillover” is when the leap between species takes place. Quammen balances the technical terms with gorily gripping description and scenes from his own fearless journeys with tropical scientists through buggy swamps, dank caves and the corridors of the Hong Kong hotel where SARS first got its foothold in the human population. Eat a possibly SARS-infected bamboo rat? Why not? The meat “was mild, subtle, faintly sweet,” Quammen writes. The book must document at least a dozen round-the-world trips, showing the vast ground that the study of such infectious disease must cover. But his real gift is his writing, with its nice balance of reverence and whimsy. A blood-stained paper sample, for example, punched from a larger sheet, has “surrendered its secrets to science. DNA confetti.” Amid all the thrills of this subject there’s a grave moral to Quammen’s story: “If you’re a thriving population, living at high density but exposed to new bugs, it’s just a matter of time until the NBO”—the Next Big One, an affliction unlike any we have seen before—“arrives.”

The End of Men and the Rise of Women
by Hanna Rosin
Here’s one of those books that make all the puzzle pieces come together—academic studies, news stories, TV shows, novels, that strange Super Bowl commercial with the evocative undertones. And the picture that emerges is that on many fronts women are about to overtake—or have already overtaken—men. Women earn more bachelor’s degrees; they have been less severely affected by the recession and the decline of manufacturing; and they possess more of the “people skills,” such as flexibility and creativity, that are valued in the rapidly evolving economy. Hanna Rosin is an editor at the Atlantic (the book grew out of an essay she published there) and Slate, and has a nimble, fluid style. The End of Men is chock-full of information, but it’s carefully curated, with memorable characters and many revelations. The city where women’s median income exceeds that of men by the greatest margin? Auburn-Opelika, Alabama. Some select liberal arts colleges are so overwhelmed by talented young ladies that economists estimate that just possessing a Y chromosome increases an applicant’s chances for admission by 6.5 to 9 percentage points. Rosin’s title is a sensational statement meant to sell books, not a real proposition; last I checked, men were not going the way of the dodo. But I’ll tell many twenty-something women to read this book—and every twenty-something man that he must.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis
by Timothy Egan
The Native Americans in Edward Curtis’s turn-of-the-century photographs are striking—an old woman with skin as wrinkled and lined as parched desert dirt, a girl with heavy, blunt-cut hair and woven cords draped from her neck. And they are all haunting, ghosts of a vanished way of life. Curtis, a grade-school dropout turned photographer, was the chronicler of North America’s native people—a white man who gained almost unprecedented access to tribes and documented them for his massive multi-volume opus, The North American Indian, as well as what Egan calls “the world’s first feature-length documentary film.” Egan, a journalist and historian, deeply admires the obsessive Curtis, who traveled to the most remote corners of the country to encounter famous native American leaders such as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, the Apache leader Geronimo. Academic critics have complained that some Curtis images are more romantic than real, and Egan is not blind to his subject’s flaws—Curtis left his wife and children to fend for themselves while he was focusing on others. But it is the photographer’s humility and dedication that lingers in this moving biography. When Curtis died in 1952, he had not “a single possession to his name,” writes Egan, but he had left behind a permanent and invaluable memorial.

The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History
by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns
Stormy and dark, this reads like a family scrapbook you might banish to the far corners of the attic. Who wants to remember such hard times, captured here on hardened faces and in fear-filled eyes? Why dwell on such a troublesome blip in the triumphant narrative of American manifest destiny? Fortunately, Duncan and Burns don’t hesitate. Their masterful volume accompanies a November PBS documentary about the environmental catastrophe brought on by fierce drought and heedless over-cultivation in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico in the 1930s. The authors have relied on interviews with some two dozen survivors, who tell of children going to school wearing gas masks and goggles to block out the dust. Once-grassy plains became lunar landscapes, bleached and featureless. The numbers alone are stunning. In 1934, the U.S. government spent half of what it had spent throughout all of World War I just to combat the drought. Toward the end of the decade, nine million acres of land had been abandoned—an area equal to Maryland. After this year’s long, dry summer, as we face the prospect of rising temperatures, this is a story full of foreboding.

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