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“Contagious is a magnificent book, notable for its prose, its expansiveness, its courage, and its creativity.”—Rita Charon, founder of the Program in Narrative Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center
“Rippling across the span of the twentieth century, Priscilla Wald’s book traces the trajectories of ‘outbreak narratives,’ stories about the spread and conquest of contagious diseases. With beautifully crafted prose, Wald shows how the scientific and fictional, social and microbial intermingle as outbreak narratives confront an essential paradox, that human connectedness both imperils and saves us. Contagious is essential reading for science studies, for the field of literature and medicine, and indeed for anyone interested in the social, discursive, and cultural implications of epidemiology.”—N. Katherine Hayles, University of California, Los Angeles
“Priscilla Wald stunningly demonstrates how epidemics are forms of cultural autobiography, telescoping stories of outbreak and contagion that are reflected in our myths, symbols, archetypes, and social networks. Beautifully written and passionately argued, Contagious is required reading for those interested in learning how our diseases shape the ways we think about ourselves and our relationships and how our desires to be close to other people overlap with our anxieties about being infected by them.”—Jonathan Michel Metzl, author of Prozac on the Couch: Prescribing Gender in the Era of Wonder Drugs
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Wald traces how changing ideas about disease emergence and social interaction coalesced in the outbreak narrative. She returns to the early years of microbiology—to the identification of microbes and “Typhoid Mary,” the first known healthy human carrier of typhoid in the United States—to highlight the intertwined production of sociological theories of group formation (“social contagion”) and medical theories of bacteriological infection at the turn of the twentieth century. Following the evolution of these ideas, Wald shows how they were affected by—or reflected in—the advent of virology, Cold War ideas about “alien” infiltration, science-fiction stories of brainwashing and body snatchers, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Contagious is a cautionary tale about how the stories we tell circumscribe our thinking about global health and human interactions as the world imagines—or refuses to imagine—the next Great Plague.
Priscilla Wald is Professor of English at Duke University. She is the author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form and the editor of the journal American Literature, both also published by Duke University Press.