The Ghost Map

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The Ghost Map Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Steven Johnson

Steven Berlin Johnson grew up in Washington, D.C., and studied semiotics at Brown University. Later, he received his master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University in the City of New York. Johnson remained in New York after completing his degree, and began working as a freelance journalist for various papers and magazines, including the New York Times. He published his first book, Interface Cultures: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate, in 1997. Since then, he’s published nine other books on a variety of popular science topics, including digital technology, urban planning, and the discovery of oxygen. Perhaps his most successful book was 2005’s Everything Bad is Good for You, in which he provocatively argued that computer games, reality television, and other forms of “low” culture were actually making society more intelligent. Johnson still lives in New York City, along with his wife and three children.
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Historical Context of The Ghost Map

The central historical event that The Ghost Map discusses is urbanization. In the 19th century, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, an increasingly large potion of the European population began living in large cities such as London. In part, this was a result of the changes in land laws, which pushed country folk off their lands and forced them to take jobs in factories. Throughout the 19th century, the population of London increased to many millions of residents, making it the biggest city in European history up to that point. With no experience managing a city so massive, London’s municipal government in the Victorian era faltered again and again; there was no welfare system, no workable way of disposing of waste, and no reliable transportation system. In large part, Johnson argues, the leaders of big Western cities of the 20th and 21st centuries have been more successful in dealing with their populations because they learned what not to do from the Victorians.

Other Books Related to The Ghost Map

Perhaps the most important literary works to which Johnson alludes are the novels of Charles Dickens. Charles Dickens was the most popular and beloved English author of the 19th century, and his novels are remarkable not only for their literary merits but for the honesty with which they confront themes of poverty, urbanism, corruption, and industrialization. In Bleak House (1853), Dickens paints a miserable picture of Victorian London; in Hard Times (1854), he goes even further, denouncing the soul-crushing structure of the factory system. Johnson also alludes to the political writings of Karl Marx, in particular, Capital (1867)—which, Johnson notes, Marx composed partly during his time living in London, and which may have reflected Marx’s disgust with the squalid conditions of London.
Key Facts about The Ghost Map
  • Full Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
  • When Written: 2004-2006
  • Where Written: New York City and Washington, D.C.
  • When Published: October 19, 2006
  • Genre: Nonfiction, history
  • Setting: London, mid-19th century
  • Climax: John Snow tries to convince the local authorities to remove the Broad Street pump handle
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The Ghost Map

Tech titan. In addition to his writing, Steven Johnson has been highly successful as a co-creator of websites, including FEED, Plastic.com, and outside.in. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Johnson was one of the reigning figures of “Silicon Alley” in New York City.

A matter of moments. One of the most memorable experiences of Steven Johnson’s life occurred during a heavy storm in 2004. Johnson and his wife were in their house, looking out the window at the rain. A few moments later, they turned away from the window—just as the storm smashed through the glass. Had they still been standing in front of the window, Johnson reports, they could have been killed.