The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson, 2006.

John Snow cholera map 1854

A fascinating book. It’s about how Dr John Snow made a map of the deaths in an 1854 Cholera outbreak in London and figured out what causes cholera, how to prevent it, and in the process pretty much invented epidemiology as well as influencing everything from information design to how modern cities build waste systems. Great book, fun to read, lots of cool information, makes me appreciate modern science all the more.

However: there is no print of the map. You know, the Ghost Map, from the title of the book. A good portion of the book is Johnson referencing details on the map and describing how the map was made and how it was changed in subsequent versions. Yet the only image of the map is a cropped closeup used primarily as a decorative plate for chapter title pages. It looks like a graphic designer thought the actual map was too boring or unattractive, and so decided to blow up a small portion of it for use as a background for text.

It doesn’t make any sense. The book is about the map! The book and the map are about information design! You can’t see the scale or the distribution of deaths or half the things Johnson talks about if you’re only looking at the center of the map!

The map is in the public domain, so it can’t have been any more expensive to print than the other contemporary images in the book. Look, here it is on my blog. Isn’t it interesting?

I stopped reading the book 2 chapters from the end, when Dr Snow was dead, there was no more cholera in London, and it finally dawned on me that they really weren’t going to show me the map. So I looked it up on Wikipedia and re-read the section about it in Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which rocks and is full of awesome informative images.

Stupid publishers. If the book is about an image, show me the damn image. Even my paperback copy of The DaVinci Code had a print of the Madonna of the Rocks. Sheesh.

For more information on cholera, check out the WHO cholera site.

6 thoughts on “The Ghost Map

  1. Clare Post author

    It’s a wonderful image – you can see how Snow figured out what was going on when he made the map. If you’re interested in more maps or graphics of information, you should check out Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information. Or indeed any book by Tufte.

  2. nev

    That was bothering me as well. They hinted at it throughout the book, and only showed it in chapter headers, but obscured behind text. Still, you should read the end of the book, very worth it.

  3. Rogue Medic

    The title is about the map. He does spend one chapter on the map. The book is not about the map. Yes, it would have been nice to have the map in the book. As you pointed out, it is public domain, which is why I easily found copies on line.

    The last 2 chapters of the book are interesting. He wanders in interesting places. I do not know if you will enjoy the rest of the book, but I recommend that finish reading the book. He finds interesting ways of connecting apparently diverse information into something that should get you to look at things differently. The conclusion spends a bit on the map, too.

  4. Zac Imboden

    Thank you for your post (3 years ago) about the lack of the key map in The Ghost Map. I have just finished reading the paperback version, which contains only an earlier version of the map but not the one that Johnson goes on and on about, namely the one showing the correlation between foot traffic to the pumps and deaths.

    There is actually an online website companion to the book, and in the upper left-hand corner they have a map, but, *it is STILL not the second, Voronoi map!

    I then went to the Penguin reading guide web page for the book, which had nothing but a list of study questions and lots of links to buy various Penguin editions of the book.

    I wanted to reply to you and also correct a potential error. According the the UCLA website on John Snow, the map you are posting in your blog is actually not John Snow’s version of the map. It was one made much later, in 1960, by an illustrator named Regmarad. See for more info.

    So I’m off to search for the actual second version of Snow’s map with the Voronoi device.


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