Friday, June 19, 2009

Book Review: Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

Demon in the Freezer was an interesting, accessible book. Most of its faults, and strengths, derive from the fact that the emphasis is on presenting points of view, rather than on laying out an argument based on factual research.

Preston sandwiches the discussion about smallpox between sections about the anthrax attacks in 2001. He starts with the identification of the spores as anthrax and the mounting concern that it is a bioterrorist threat. He then continues to give a brief history of smallpox and its eradication. The story of Peter Los yields a general familiarity with the disease and then major personalities like D.A. Henderson and Larry Brilliant give Preston a launching point for his chapters about the eradication effort. Next Preston tackle bioweapons. Here he belabors the fact that the Soviets were likely developing weaponized smallpox and anthrax, drawing upon accounts from Soviet defectors and American intelligence. Finally, Preston discusses the variola stores elimination debate and then uses Lisa Hensley as the entry point for the story behind the development of an animal model for smallpox. At the very end, Preston concludes the account of the anthrax attacks and mentions, briefly, how the advance of biotechnology makes it easier than ever to engineer microorganisms and viruses.

Preston frames his story in terms of individuals' stories. He always uses a personality to introduce information about smallpox, and structures his chapters in terms of that person's narrative. One of the fantastic outcomes of this approach is that Preston really brings life to the story of smallpox. Most books describe the progression of clinical symptoms of the disease. Preston describes Peter Los' experiences, and pepper in facts about, for instance, how people who have smallpox remain conscious and mentally aware throughout the entire ordeal. He uses the outbreak initiated by Peter Los to describe what it was actually like to get vaccinated. It was fascinating: according to Preston, nurses jab your arm something like fifteen times with a bifurcated needle that has been dipped into vaccine. I found the concreteness of Preston's writing incredibly gratifying. We have all been reading many books about smallpox, and most of these lay out well-researched claims. Demon in the Freezer, however, made me look at what I knew in a more intimate way. Of course smallpox is a horrible and gruesome disease that caused unbelievable suffering. But following one person for several chapters, reading about the actual experiences, not just the symptoms, of victims gave me a better perspective, and one that I think it important. These actual experiences contain the real significance of smallpox's eradication.

I do wish that Preston cited his facts more often. My main and only criticism of the book is that the emphasis seems to fall on drama rather than researched facts at times. He makes claims, especially in the section about bioweapons, that begs question of his sources. At times he seems to give away information that is supposedly classified; undoubtedly, this is an over-dramatization on his part, meant to make a popular book more interesting. However, the reader still wants to know: where did he get this information? Citing sources would add more credibility to his assessments. Furthermore, because he angles his writing to focus on narrative and excitement, some entire chapters are superfluous. The chapter the time Lisa Hensley cut her glove in the Ebola lab was exciting and I enjoyed reading it, but it didn't really add any insights into smallpox.

Anne was telling me about Preston's writing method and I did some research on it myself. He does do a great deal of factual research, but he also spends a lot of time simply shadowing and hanging out with the people that appear in his books. After he has written the book, he reads sections aloud to the people who figure prominently and then solicits feedback. For instance, he probably read the D.A. Henderson sections aloud to D.A. Henderson and asked for comments. The result is that we get good glimpses into these people who played enormous roles in the history of smallpox and thus have better insights than anyone else into the issues at stake in the elimination debate and the bioterrorist threat. And Preston is quite even-handed about this: he presents both D.A. Henderson, an avid destructionist, and Peter Jahrling, a prominent retentionist, in a respectful, reasoned manner. We can identify with both of these people, and understand that they both have noble motives that underly their opinions.

The overall effect, as mentioned before, is a book that is narrative heavy and peppered with facts—good facts, but floating facts. I think Preston could have cited his sources without losing this important and insight-producing narrative approach. Demon in the Freezer is a popular book, an entertaining read. For people who have already learned a lot about smallpox, it is especially enjoyable because it brings the facts we have learned to life. Getting at the real experiences of people who suffered from the disease and of people who eradicated the disease is crucial for truly understanding the issues surrounding smallpox. Demon does this better than any other book I've read for this class, in spite of its flaws.

-Elaine C

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