Taynb, January 17, 2008 (view all comments by Taynb)
Norman Cantor writes about the the Black Plague with great detail. Describing the spread and the consequences of the socio economic devastation of the poorer classes that took a third of Europeans in the 14th Century. Also, theories of how some present day people are possibly immune to Aids from their ancestors who survived this plague, and how Ring a Ring o' Roses, a pocket full of posies has a different connotation once you have read this book.
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Shoshana, May 25, 2007 (view all comments by Shoshana)
I really enjoy books about the rise and spread of diseases and their effects on politics and culture. I read Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice, and History at a young age; even as a child I recognized the skillfulness and clarity of his writing. Alas, Cantor's In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made is disorganized, repetitive, tangential, and unskillful. If a student handed it in as a manuscript, I'd hand it back with the request that s/he outline her work first. I am not exaggerating when I say that putting each paragraph on an index card, throwing the cards in the air, stacking them and recompiling the book in that order without adding transitions might be an organizational improvement. Topics are touched upon and discarded; paragraphs only peripherally related to the topic festoon the chapters like cobwebs; assertions are not backed up with evidence; ideas and statements are repeated. Why this was a New York Times bestseller I don't know, but I think less of us all that it was.
Cantor's rambling and disjointed text is neither a good introduction to the plague nor, as the title promises, an examination of its aftermath. Theories of the plague's constituents (Yersina pestis? Anthrax? Cosmic dust?) are raised and dropped at random. Some historical and economic information does address the purported topic, but is poorly written and appears in desultory fashion. The text is internally contradictory. Some sentences make no sense. It reads like a rambling professor's last lecture before retirement.
Odd ad hominem arguments and strange attributive statements mar the text further. Is it really that important to identify Richard II's homosexuality multiple times? To apparently blame people who had not yet invented empiricism for not understanding about germs? To somehow hold the Jews accountable for the misperception that they caused the plague? To criticize women for choosing chastity and the cloister when their rate of death in childbirth was so high? (Male clergy are not criticized for their chastity at all.) Lucy (the early human discovered by the Leakeys) is referred to as "the black mother of us all," a phrase in which the inclusion of "black" is superfluous and strange, and which occurs in the context of a several-page disquisition that has very little to do with the plague (and certainly nothing to do with its wake).
Do yourself a favor and avoid this like the... well, you know. Many books of much higher quality address the topic. As for this one, though I am a book packrat of problematic proportions, I'm tempted to throw it in my paper recycling bin it lest it fall into the hands of someone who can't critically evaluate it.
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