So dudes. There’s this book.
(I’m gonna call y’all dudes because anybody who reads about science is a dude. Guys, chicks, your dog, your grandmother, everyone. Everyone is a dude).
Let me tell you about an awesome thing to read. It’s called Spillover, by David Quammen. First of all, don’t let the cover deceive you—this book is not terrifying. Well, at least, not in a ‘man-eating baboon apocalypse’ kind of way. More in the ‘there are diseases everywhere and they kill you by eating you from the inside-out’ kind of way. So slightly terrifying. But mostly just really fascinating and cool.
David Quammen, just for your own edification, is awesome. He was a Rhodes Scholar who graduated from Yale and then did his postgrad at Oxford. He’s written crap-tons of columns and articles about nature, travel, and adventure-y type things, as well as 15 books. That’s right, 15. 5 of which are fiction and the other ten of which are about wicked cool science stuff. Like Song of the Dodo, which is above all, an amazing title for a book, and also an in depth look at why island ecosystems are so susceptible to extinction and how humans contribute to that process.
Spillover is his latest book and is actually what has inspired me to be a science writer (lemme tell you why). In this work, he explores the vast concept of zoonotic diseases, or diseases that are transmissible from animals to humans. I admit, it sounds pretty gross and scary, but Quammen’s focus on the personal lives of both the human researchers and the diseases makes his coverage of a potentially gruesome subject much more palatable and, well, personal.
He takes separate outbreaks of diseases (both viral and bacterial) and groups them into families based on similarity; of discovery, of treatment, of geographical proximity, of life cycle. These diseases become intertwined in a narrative that is more gripping than horrifying and that takes outbreaks or diseases that you’ve vaguely heard about—on the news or in pamphlets at the doctor’s office—understandable and relatable. Even before you’ve realized it, Quammen has taken something biologically, ecologically, and sociologically complex, broken it down with a healthy dose of anecdote and snark, and suddenly you understand with perfect clarity the intricacies of the Hanta virus or what made SARS so scary.
In general, Quammen is one of those writers who makes you want to be whatever he writes about. He writes about ecological diversity, you want to be a conservation biologist. He writes about disease transmission, you want to be a virologist. He writes about The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, you want to be a biographer and historian. After being taken on all these fantastic rides by Mr. Quammen, I figured I’d just cut to the chase and become a writer like him. That way, I get to be all of them.