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Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

June 24, 2013

I’ve neglected to cross-post my last few reviews for Guys Lit Wire (Bomb by Sheinkin and Sumo by Pham, if you’re interested), but Spillover. Oh my god, this book was awesome and I loved it. If I’d read it when it came out last year, it would have easily topped my list of favorite books of 2012. But since I didn’t actually have a chance to read it until this past March, I’ll have to settle for putting it on my 2013 list.


cover of Spillover by David QuammenPick an infectious disease.

Influenza. Ebola. Bubonic plague. SARS. AIDS. I could go on.

Whatever disease you chose, there’s a good chance the pathogen that causes it originated in an animal and then jumped to humans. “This form of interspecies leap is common, not rare; about 60 percent of all human infectious diseases currently known either cross routinely or have recently crossed between other animals and us,” writes David Quammen. Such pathogens are known as zoonoses, and the moment when a pathogen jumps from one species to another is called spillover.

In Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, Quammen investigates a handful of zoonoses and how they spilled over, traveling all over the world and going into the field to speak to doctors, scientists, and survivors. He joins a biologist in Gabon who is conducting a biological survey of Central African forests, visits the “wet markets” of Guangdong, China, and helps trap monkeys and bats in Bangladesh. Along the way, he talks to men who were in the village of Mayibout 2 when Ebola struck in 1996, the doctors in Singapore who treated patients suffering from what was later identified as SARS but at first seemed merely a severe case of pneumonia, scientists who identified previously unknown diseases and tracked them to their original hosts, and many others.

Which would make for compelling reading on its own. Yet what really pushes this past compelling to outstanding is Quammen’s prose, sometimes wry (as when he notes “If you’ve followed all that, at a quick reading, you have a future in biology” after a paragraph-long description of the life stages of the Anopheles mosquito, and later “Mathematics to me is like a language I don’t speak though I admire its literature in translation.”), always sharply observant and erudite.

But for all the in-depth sections explaining scientific, medical, or epidemiological terminology, this is not a dry, detached scientific discourse. In a way, Spillover is about the human experience of infectious zoonotic disease–both those who are stricken and those who investigate it. And I could not put this book down. It’s timely and relevant, endlessly fascinating, and eloquently written.

Spillover happens to be one of three shortlisted titles for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, along with Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan and The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore. The winner will be announced at the ALA annual conference on June 30.

Book source: personal (purchased) copy.

* If, like me, you are into books about pandemics, David Dobbs put together a reading list at Slate. I haven’t yet read everything he recommends (must work on that!), but I also want to plug one article he didn’t mention, “Death at the Corners” by Denise Grady from Discover magazine. It’s not about a pandemic, but it is about a zoonotic disease outbreak, and probably THE article sparked my reading interest in infectious diseases.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2013 7:31 am

    After reading and watching World War Z, this is so freaking scary! Fiction closely based on truth is always the most frightening to me.

    • June 24, 2013 9:35 pm

      What did you think of the World War Z movie? I haven’t seen it yet, but I love the book.

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