Wednesday, October 19, 2011

eReadings 3

History of the Plague in London
Daniel Defoe

The first thing to realize about this book is its chronology. This is a "first person" narrative of the plague in late 17th century London, and if you check out the vagueness of Daniel Defoe's lifespan you realize he was at most a few years old during that time. His father is alleged to have kept some notes, perhaps a diary of the plague, so some have proposed that may have been in part the basis for this book. Others have suggested that Defoe used some other literary sources regarding the plague in other parts of Europe for his material.

So what you have is at best a second-person memoir, and when you consider the leeway one might see with a first-person memoir, at the outset you realize that there may be any number of distortions or exaggerations.

For a medical person, this is nonetheless an interesting book, showing as it does the profound effects on the infrastructure and the psyche of a large city faced with some medical epidemic for which no cure is known, yet a number of superstitions existed as to how to manage it, prevent it, most bordering on voodoo from a modern perspective.

Aside from the dubiousness of the factual information, this certainly seems more plausible than various movies about contagion we have seen. Some of the quite believable features are the accounts of people who took great precautions to avoid the plague only to succumb, and some who took none yet survived. Of course, there is ample evidence that taking unnecessary chances was generally a bad and fatal idea.

Will we ever face something like this again? The doomsayers predict it with regularity. If you ever wanted to think about coping with a very real disaster, this book is worth reading, and offers the safety of the distance of a few centuries when there was great ignorance about the cause of infectious diseases.

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