You knew everything John Snow…

I would like us to think about the narrative form of the Ghost Map in three different mediums: the novel itself, the TED talk posted by our conveners and the youtube video summary.

In his novel, Johnson employes a unique storytelling technique using a “bird’s eye view” and zooms in and out when analyzing the cholera epidemic. Johnson does not view the disease as an independent force, but rather as a circumstance-induced force that does not only contaminate the single body, but also the body politic as a whole. This “bird’s eye view” was also employed by John Snow, who had a holistic view of the city and its function and did not study cholera in isolation. Unlike the believers of the miasma theory that was mainly evidenced by a pungent smell, Snow used a complex methodological approach and successfully managed to identify the source of the cholera outbreak. While Johnson acknowledges humans, in particular, Snow and Whitehead, he also prioritizes bacteria, whose collective agency is superior to that of humans.

However, the TED talk embarks on a more storytelling form than the novel itself. The TED talk at first seems like a stand-up comedy, as Johnson starts his talk with a few jokes. In his TED talk, Johnson introduces his audience to cholera by telling the story of “patient zero,” which is a common narrative device in contagion movies and stories. While the TED talk does not go into the specific details about the microbe, Johnson touches upon the body politic and he also argues that we should trust locals like Snow and Whitehead amid a crisis.

Finally, the video summary creates suspense and embarks on a storytelling frame, even more so than the TED talk. The video summary focuses on the “patient zero” and Snow’s cholera map and does not touch upon on the other protagonists of the novel (Whitehead, the bacteria, and the city).  

As we go from the novel to the Ted talk to the video summary, it seems that we are losing the “bird’s eye view” as there is an increasing focus on the human characters of the story. This raises the question of how does the narrative framework shape our understanding of an epidemic outbreak?

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  1. Now that’s the meme this book was waiting for! I think the question you raise at the end is really crucial too: what happens to our understanding when the narrative frame shifts? How important is narrative to our understanding of any medical crisis?

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