In 2012, award winning author and Rhodes Scholar David Quammen published his 10th book on science, titled Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Quammen, whose first book was published in 1970, also has five books of fiction, along with many magazine articles in his resume.
Today, the CDC’s EID Journal has a short, but very complementary review of his book, Spillover. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that reviews on Amazon have been superlative as well, and Spillover has made more than one Top 10 books of 2012 lists.
First the EID review, then I’ll return with more.
Books and Media
W.W. Norton & Company, Ltd., New York, New York, USA, 2012
Pages: 487; Price: US $28.95
Spillover is a single event during which a pathogen from 1 species moves into another species; such movement can result in an outbreak. In 9 chapters, David Quammen chronicles various spillover events by using personal anecdotes and multiple stories to recount these events for the expert and novice alike. He frames the events within an ecologic sense of the pathogen, the host, and the increasing human population. He focuses recurrently on the NBO (next big one) and how, if HIV or Ebola virus were more easily transmissible, no one would remain to read his book.
Quammen’s analogies are superb. Instead of trying to turn the reader into a scientist with dry explanations, he uses analogies that have universal relevance. For viral morphology, Ebola and Hendra virions together would resemble a “capellini in a light sauce of capers.” Mathematical modeling can be appreciated in translation, just as Dostoevsky can be appreciated in translation instead of in the original Russian. Quammen compares combining specific antibodies with their virus to splashing holy water on a witch. Regarding airborne transmission, he says that pathogens can “waft into a nearby village as easily as the pleasant, autumnal smell of smoke from a pile of leaves.” Throughout the book, the subjects of human and animal diseases are “. . . strands of one braided cord.”
The last chapter, “It Depends,” is particularly sobering. If, in an ecologic sense, an outbreak is a rapid and explosive increase in the abundance of a particular species, then maybe humans are the current outbreak in the world. We have become a dense forest; tinder is dry; and the NBO is around the corner.
Who should read this book? Anyone interested in science can enjoy it—those who make their living at the bench, teach, or study—and anyone just looking for a good read.
Author affiliation: Author affiliation: University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA
Spillover also received a glowing endorsement from Ed Yong when he was at Discover Magazine (see Spillover, by David Quammen – a recommended read), and I can wholeheartedly recommend it myself.
For more on David’s book, and the threats posed by zoonotic disease spillovers, we turn to a Minnesota NPR radio interview recorded last September. It runs 30 minutes, and is well worth the time.
11:20 AM, September 24, 2012