Tuesday, July 09, 2013

(Spoilers) Non-Fiction Reading: Conquistador and The Ghost Map

***SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers may be found in the post below about VARIOUS ITEMS. And I'm going to add in a bit of filler text here to limit how much of the main article gets shown in a preview. That should take care of most of it. Hopefully. And away we go. SPOILER WARNING. ***

For a while after I graduated from college, I temped at an office a block away from a huge bookstore. With an hour to burn daily, I naturally spent many hours hanging out there and browsing their wares. Many afternoons were spent browsing magazines, going through well planned out book displays, cards, and the usual bookstore stuff. As the frequency of my visits outpaced the frequency of most magazine releases and display updates, I eventually ventured to the largest part of the store: the books section.

Long story short, I found two great books that remain among my favorites years later. Both happen to be non-fiction and they deal with two huge points in history: the conquest of the New World and the eradication of a lethal waterborne disease. If you were more cynical, one could say that both deal with lots and lots of death.

The Ghost Map and Conquistador
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Starting with the epidemic, The Ghost Map is an account of an outbreak of cholera in London back in the 1800s. This was a major point in history when it came to sanitation and water treatment. As a person with two degrees in civil engineering, one specializing in environmental engineering (i.e. water resources and treatment), this story is a significant point in the development of the profession.


Considering that it's history, I don't know how much of a spoiler this can be, but oh well. It's been a while since I read this, but here's a short synopsis of the story -- don't quote me on anything.

Cholera is a disease caused by bacteria that are usually found in water. From what I understand, you drink contaminated water, it gets into your intestines, you get really sick, it comes out both ends, you get dehydrated, and may die. To compound the problem, sanitation was poor at the time, so people "relieved themselves" where they ate and drank causing contamination to easily spread. Being back in the 1800s when medical knowledge was limited, both treatment and prevention were relatively limited.

A lot of people died during multiple pandemics in the city of London, England. This changed when John Snow investigated a major outbreak in an area and discovered that people were getting sick around a specific well.

This is a beautifully written and presented account of John Snow and his investigation of this major cholera outbreak. To paint a complete picture of the times, there are elaborate descriptions of the city of London itself and life during the 19th century. I thought that it read like a regular novel. If I wasn't aware of the fact that this did in fact happen, I would have considered it to be a thrilling work of fiction. Being both a lover of history and the Victorian era (or just about anything English, actually), the historic details of life and death in London made this book especially enjoyable.

The Ghost Map is around 270 pages long with additional notes and references that I mostly skipped. Being a fairly fickle reader, this is usually a good and non-intimidating length for me. I don't recall any issues with pacing or wanting it to be over already. Great book that I can easily recommend for lovers of non-fiction, British history, mapping, and pandemics. It's only around $15 and available in multiple formats at the time of writing.

Conquistador by Buddy Levy
This is another history book that I stumbled upon at the bookstore during my temping days. Instead of Old World history, Conquistador is a book about the conquest of the New World -- okay, part of it. Specifically, it's about the conquest of modern day Mexico by a Spaniard by the name of Hernan Cortes (missed a few accents there).


First, don't quote me on any of this.

The New World, otherwise known as the Americas, was discovered in 1492 by you know who. He came to the Americas sailing under a Spanish flag and this brought about more Spanish expeditions. One was headed by Cortes who "utilized" local indigenous forces (...) and relatively advanced technology against the native Aztec empire. If you're not aware, Cortes ended up wiping out a lot of people and conquering the empire -- I mean a LOT of people.

Again, I haven't read this in a while. But from what I remember, for about $15, you get a detailed account of Cortes' expedition from when he first lands in the New World to the Aztec capital and back to Spain. What I found the most interesting was that the writer keeps an ongoing record of supplies, personnel, morale, equipment, and weaponry among the Spaniards. There are also details about the Aztec's inventory, but I forget how much. Don't get me wrong, this isn't like an action-adventure narrative about a game or match. These details helped to paint a detailed picture and facilitated a sense of immersion for me.

I found this to be a well written and detailed account of the 16th century Spanish expedition that led to the fall of the Aztec empire. To summarize the book in a sentence, I would say it is a story about greed, first contact between two civilizations at vastly different stages of technological development, and deception.

The discovery of the New World by dwellers of the Old World has always been of great interest to me. Being a resident of North America, the history of the past 250 years (~1750 and up) is usually pretty well publicized and taught throughout school. However, the relative "secrecy" of the first few hundred years isn't usually as well known. It doesn't help that the Spanish landed first in South/ Central America. This book is an entertaining chance to learn about the early years.

My version of the book is around 330 pages long, which, again, is a good length for me. I don't recall slow sections that I wanted to skip, and it was quite the page-turner -- hate that expression.