28 September 2014

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

Summary from Goodreads:
Why do we fear vaccines? A provocative examination by Eula Biss, the author of Notes from No Man’s Land, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Upon becoming a new mother, Eula Biss addresses a chronic condition of fear—fear of the government, the medical establishment, and what is in your child’s air, food, mattress, medicine, and vaccines. She finds that you cannot immunize your child, or yourself, from the world.
In this bold, fascinating book, Biss investigates the metaphors and myths surrounding our conception of immunity and its implications for the individual and the social body. As she hears more and more fears about vaccines, Biss researches what they mean for her own child, her immediate community, America, and the world, both historically and in the present moment. She extends a conversation with other mothers to meditations on Voltaire’s Candide, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors, and beyond. On Immunity is a moving account of how we are all interconnected—our bodies and our fates.

When I saw that Eula Biss was coming out with a book of essays about vaccination - and I couldn't tell whether she was yea or nay on the topic - I tracked down the Graywolf Press people and asked for a review copy of On Immunity.  As someone who is both a bookseller and works in the field of epidemiology and has had to deal with the fallout when someone decides not to vaccinate and then catches and spreads a vaccine-preventable disease, well...let's just say I felt uniquely situated as a reader of this book.

On Immunity is an excellent book of short chapters exploring the nature of vaccination as both a concept and a practice.  Beginning with the Greek myth of Achilles, whose mother attempted to prevent his death by either burning away his mortality by sacred fire or dipping him in the River Styx (depending on the version you read) leaving behind his heel as his only vulnerability, Biss meditates on the reasoning behind anti-vaccination, the history of compulsory medicine, the nature of scientific research, language/semantics, skepticism, community versus the individual, the undying nature of stuff that gets on the Internet, and the anxiety that comes with being a parent.  She touches on feminism, classism, and racism in examining compulsory vaccination policies.  And, yes, there are vampires - particularly the Victorian construct of the vampire as metaphor for sex, disease, and contagion (aka, moral disintegration).

The structure of On Immunity is a bit different than Biss's previous collection, Notes from No Man's Land.  Notes consists of discrete essays on the topics of culture and race.  On Immunity, in contrast, only appears to have chapters that stand alone, except when you get right down to examining them they actually need the rest of the book to work.  Each chapter introduces a theme but calls back or looks forward to other sections of the book similar in ways that the individual body is part of a collective and can never be completely separate from community.

The reason I was so interested in this book - setting aside the fact that Biss is a wonderful essayist - is that she isn't a scientist.  Her perspective comes from a much different place than mine and, given that I respect her writing, I was willing to read her perspective even if I disgreed with it in the end.  I think the greatest compliment I can pay a book is to say it engaged me with the text.  I have notes scribbled all throughout my copy for things I need to look up, notes where I did check something in a biology/epidemiology text book, or straight up responses (I have a note "That's a BS statement" next to a quote from an anti-vaccine "expert" - and I use "expert" only in the politest sense).  Biss explores both sides of the compulsory vaccination debate as objectively as she can.  By the end of the book, she has made her decisions about vaccinating her child - since I haven't had a snit in this review you can probably guess what it was - and it was a delight to read the connections she drew between science and the humanities.

A recommended read for everyone.

Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

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