Silent Spring

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An Inoculation Against Mistrust: Eula Biss’s On Immunity

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In 18th-century England, most everyone got smallpox, an infectious disease that results in terrific rashes and blisters on the skin. Facial scars left over from an infection were a common occurrence. This was true for everyone, regardless of class or station in society, except for milkmaids. It was widely known that milkmaids who came into contact with cows blistered with cowpox, and who developed blisters on the hands they used to milk their cows, would not develop smallpox, even if directly exposed to someone who was suffering from the disease.

“Vaccination is a precursor to modern medicine, not the product of it,” writes Eula Biss, in On Immunity: An Inoculation. “Its roots are in folk medicine, and its first practitioners were farmers.” During an epidemic in 1774, an infected farmer transferred pus from a cow into the arms of his wife and two small boys, using a darning needle. “The farmer’s neighbors were horrified,” Biss notes. Nonetheless, his family developed immunity to smallpox.

Both the effectiveness of vaccination and the horror and outrage it can provoke live on with us to this day.

On Immunity is a wide-ranging book, covering topics as diverse as pesticides, metaphor, and vampires, with influences ranging from Greek myth to Voltaire to Susan Sontag. Biss traces our understanding of the undead along with our understanding of germs, blood, vaccination, and capitalism, which has often been described as blood sucking. (Marx: “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more is sucks.”)

Biss explores many of the ways in which vaccination has been used to exploit and oppress the powerless. “The poor,” Biss points out, in a passage about forced vaccination campaigns, were often “enlisted in the protection of the privileged.” This has been true in countries across the globe.

But those being oppressed often fought back.

The working-class people who resisted Britain’s 1853 provision for free, mandatory vaccination were concerned, in part, with their own freedom. Faced with fines, imprisonment, and the seizure of their own property if they did not vaccinate their infants, they sometimes compared their predicament to slavery.

“Vaccination, like slavery,” Biss writes, “raises some pressing questions about one’s rights to one’s own body.” Set in these terms, the moral argument about vaccination concerns the individual, not society.

The fight against vaccines rages on, though it is no longer a working-class struggle but rather a struggle fought by the privileged. The public face for the anti-vaccine movement is celebrity Jenny McCarthy, who has raised questions about the connection between vaccines and autism, and has argued for parents’ rights not to vaccinate their children. These arguments against vaccines continue to center on the individual; that is, not ‘what’s best for society?’ but rather ‘what’s best for my child?’

Vaccines do benefit the individual; however, as Biss explains, their real strength is in the community.

If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination.

An individual who has been vaccinated, but who lives in a community in which few people have been vaccinated, is more likely to become ill than a person who has not been vaccinated but who lives in a community where a large percentage of people have been vaccinated. Vaccinating oneself is about protecting one’s community more than it is about protecting oneself. “We are protected not so much by our own skin,” Biss writes, “but by what is beyond it.”

Were Biss a different kind of writer, this book might have been a point-by-point rebuttal of Jenny McCarthy and others in the anti-vaccination community. The results of scientific studies, after all, clearly support the use of vaccines. Readers hoping for such a rebuttal will no doubt find the book perplexing. Biss’s project, it turns out, is far grander than a simple explanation of the facts.

Each of the 30 concise chapters of On Immunity has an element of “separateness” to it. That is, each is able to stand on its own as a self-contained micro-essay. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll find that they are all interdependent — much like the individuals who make up a community.

Some chapters of On Immunity are downright gothic, while others fall well within the traditions of literary criticism and nature writing. Biss explores the impacts of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring (1962), the book that brought the harmful effects of pesticides, especially DDT, to the public’s attention. Interestingly, Biss explains what she, and others, see as problems brought on by the movement to phase out DDT — “DDT is not exactly what Carson feared it was” — including a resurgence of malaria in parts of Africa.

Silent Spring, though remembered as a forceful argument against pesticides, was not without nuance. “But the enduring power of [Carson’s] book,” Biss writes, “owes less to its nuance than to its capacity to induce horror.” Though Biss indulges in horror throughout the book — quite literally in the figure of Dracula — On Immunity bears no resemblance to a fear-mongering polemic.

Admirers of the book-length essay will find this work remarkable. Few writers are able to so seamlessly stitch together literature, theory, personal experience, and science. Still, it’s hard to imagine Jenny McCarthy and her followers paging through On Immunity, and so, in comparison to Silent Spring, one wonders what type of effect it will have on the body politic.

On Immunity is as much a book about trust as it is a book about vaccines. The current anti-vaccine crusade is grounded in a lack of trust of medicine, of science, of each other. Its arguments are based on the assumption that we can separate ourselves from those around us. Biss provides an inoculation against mistrust, against the primacy of the individual to the detriment of the community. Perhaps, as she makes her nuanced arguments, Biss is engaging in a radical act of trust, assuming that the public is capable of understanding more than simple sound bites.

“Our understanding of immunity remains dependent on metaphor,” Biss writes, “even at the most technical level.” In On Immunity, the concept of immunity becomes a metaphor for ourselves, for the ways we relate to one another, the way we live as a social body. We cannot separate ourselves from the poor, or the sick, or the Jenny McCarthys. “We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”

A Year in Reading: Joseph McElroy

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Far and near, the book that has meant the most to me these past twelve months is Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea. Published first in 1955 it’s been on my shelves ever since and reread and reread, so that rereading itself is in its meaning for me – the familiarity yet the new knowledge because the reader has changed becomes all over again a way of reading Life. Now a central text for my understanding of the coast, the meeting of sea and land, in a non-fiction book of my own about water almost completed after six years but in my thoughts maybe most of my life, Carson’s beautifully observant and far-reaching thoughts on limpets, winged kelp, the V-shaped tracks that indicate the presence nearby of the heart urchin, the infinitesimal capillary sheaths of water protecting each grain of sand like the exact narrative of a great patient writer and walker, the overwhelming abundance before us of growth and passage, transparence, smell, hiddenness, sound, are also the layers of slow time, millions of intricate years. And if in 1955 the ancient rhythms of rising and falling sea levels join past and future, this voice of a scientist- philosopher-poet-prophet go on telling us what we have to lose. And how we are dual and coastal, amphibious nomads in what we are able to think about and value if we only will, and are losing. Rachel Carson’s books, like Silent Spring (that blew the whistle on how we poison our Earth), have been dangerous for those who profit from not caring about our Nature, but so far not dangerous enough if we witness, as we must, corporate sponsored pollution embracing air, river, sea, sunlight, and the lying that threatens our very language. She reminds me again of what I almost didn’t know I knew.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

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Ask a Book Question (#57): The Greatest Magazine Ever?

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It’s been a while since we’ve done an “Ask a Book Question” at The Millions, but Kirk from Texas left a good one in the comments of a recent post:You write a lot about your obsession with The New Yorker… Can you tell those of us that are unfamiliar with the publication more about it, and why you like it so much.I love The New Yorker for many reasons. I prefer to know a little about a lot of things rather than a lot about a few, and so I find the wide range of topics the magazine takes on is appealing. It’s a surprising unpredictable magazine. I also like that the magazine has history, and that it has stayed true to itself by changing only incrementally over the years and for the most part taking pains to make sure any changes made sense. Generally speaking, The New Yorker is guaranteed to provide me with at least one transcendent reading experience per month, often more than that, and very few clunkers. It is exceedingly rare that I quit reading an article halfway through. By that measure alone it beats any other magazine I’ve ever picked up.I could go on about The New Yorker for pages, but instead, I thought I’d let some others spill some ink on their love for the magazine. We’ll start with Emily Gordon, who heads up Emdashes, a blog devoted to a single magazine. I’ll let you guess which one.When I tell people I write a blog about The New Yorker, they’re either excited and ask for the url, or freaked out. The people in the second group get that funny look so familiar to elementary-school students and poets, and say with withering irony, “Wow, you must really LOVE it.” Being an unfashionable enthusiast and advocate of the New Sincerity, I answer simply that I do.In his email asking for my thoughts about the magazine, Max called me “the Web’s pre-eminent NYer expert.” I wish! I’m reminded every time I go to a New Yorker-themed event–especially on the Upper West Side–that there are far more fanatical and expert readers out there, and they usually have a couple decades of subscribership on me, too. In my paying work life, I’m a magazine editor and a book and media critic, so that’s the spirit in which I write the blog. At the same time, I sometimes feel like a roving preacher from a quirky sect, with all the attendant longing for clarity and community, and possibly some of the narrow-mindedness and naivete, too. Meanwhile, perhaps also like an evangelist, I get to experience moments, collectively and alone, of overpowering delight and that spooky but real phenomenon called “flow.” (Also, the blogosphere being what it is, moments of derision, bafflement, and the sound of stone silence.) Man, I sound like Garrison Keillor. My real point is, I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends who feel the way I do, and despite moments of overextended self-doubt, I’m grateful for all of this.But back to the reason for reading it in the first place. I read Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” recently, and wrote down this line: “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” That’s probably at the heart of it. I’m a third-generation New Yorker reader, and the magazine’s writers and artists are essential to both sides of family language and lore. When I was at the Daniel Alarcon and Zadie Smith reading at the most recent New Yorker Festival, in a beautiful church-like space called the Angel Orensanz Foundation, I had the strange thought that I was in the only church my parents (who are long-divorced atheists) would ever have attended. I got a little teary thinking about them, in the Church of The New Yorker with its Chastian or Steinbergian heaven, and hey, I was the one who said I was an evangelist. “This isn’t a magazine–it’s a movement.” Harold Ross said that.So what do I preach? That the magazine, far from a bastion of elitism and snobbery, is the site of the most hardworking and stirring journalism available in English, about essential subjects like New Orleans, the global environmental crisis, American poverty, education, and the war in Iraq. Some people will never agree; they think the whole thing is foolish. “Tell me why your project is so compelling or should be to someone like me who DESPISES the culture of writing that the NEW YORKER inspires and finds literary glomming to be complete bullshit,” an acerbic fellow blogger once wrote me, sneeringly. He thinks the publishing-industrial complex needs taking down, not celebrating. I defended myself in the lengthy email exchange, but afterward I felt like my soul had been slapped to the floor, as in that scene in Amelie. I was so outraged but so suddenly unsure of my mission that I thought of shutting down the site entirely, taking my ball and going home, as my friend Tom would say; it’s a little like the way I felt when I heard, just recently, that a New Yorker film critic (for the Goings on About Town listings, which contain some of the sharpest and wittiest writing in the magazine) refers to me as “the New Yorker groupie.” Ow.On the other hand, there are lots of worse things to be. Steve Martin wrote in the magazine this week that he sometimes feels nostalgic for the “high spirits and high jinks” of his early career, “before I turned professional, before comedy became serious.” Maybe The New Yorker, too, is best viewed from one’s childhood coffee table, before it becomes a media outlet, a buzz-worthy blog topic, an online brand, a symbol of what one has, in some senses, lost: the life of Pauline Kael; the grandparents who understood fewer and fewer of the cartoons and became sorrowful about it; the vast possibilities of a future full of limitless writing and reading opportunities. But for now, I’ve got a way of broadcasting my–let’s face it–devotion. Want to be saved? Subscribe. I’m only half kidding.Millions contributor Garth also weighed in with his thoughts on the magazine:I was trying to explain to a friend the other weekend why The New Yorker is the greatest magazine in the history of American magazine journalism. I can think of a few reasons.First, I love The New Yorker for the assumptions it makes about its readership. It assumes that we are bright, literate, patient, and curious about the world. (Okay, it also assumes that we’re well-off and liberal, but that’s less important). It assumes that I, who loathed biology in high school, will be fascinated and moved by 8,000 words on the redwoods…and lo and behold, I am. Rather than tailoring itself to the marketplace, which is how we now think of the publishing place, The New Yorker recognizes that it CREATES its marketplace. Which is why I hate to see it stoop to puff-pieces on Cate Blanchett or Mariah Carey.Second, I find the history of The New Yorker, and its attendant myths, endlessly fascinating. One example: Jamaica Kincaid was doing odd-jobs for editor William Shawn when he decided that she should write for the magazine. She and George Trow and Ian Frazier became an inseparable, and eccentric triumvirate. Later, she married Mr. Shawn’s son Allen.Third, The New Yorker has subsidized a staggering (surprising) number of canonical writers. E.B. White? New Yorker. J.D. Salinger? New Yorker. The Fire Next Time? First ran in the New Yorker. Silent Spring? Likewise. Eichmann in Jerusalem? You guessed it. Oliver Sacks, Joseph Mitchell, Alistair Reid, Janet Malcolm, Calvin Trillin, Philip Gourevich, Pauline Kael, A.J. Liebling, James Thurber, William Steig, the Addams Family, John Cheever, Saul Steinberg… Among the current writers, Elizabeth Kolbert, Georges Packer and Saunders, Nick Paumgarten (the new Ian Frazier), Peter Schjeldahl, Mark Singer, and James Wood (as of last month), are all doing work that may still entertain and instruct years from now. This is not even to mention the art.Each week, The New Yorker delivers a multi-course meal (about four-hours worth) of reporting, opinion, reviews, cartoons, and humorous “casuals” to my door. Sometimes the meal is mediocre, but it’s always sustaining.And finally, Millions contributor Noah brings us home:I don’t have a subscription, though I once did. It started sort of piling up on me, making me feel like an arch procrastinator. I’d like to renew but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. But one thing about The New Yorker: you can pick up an issue, be it this week’s, last week’s, or one from 1987, and it always reads. This is surely a testament to the quality of the writing, but also to the editorial sensibilities that drive the magazine. My most memorable New Yorker article was about Rafael Perez, disgraced and incarcerated LAPD officer, who testified for the state in the prosecution of numerous other LA cops who were part of the Rampart Crash unit, a renegade police outfit that committed numerous crimes. Denzel Washington’s character in the movie Training Day was based on Perez. Perez has also been rumored to have had a hand in the murder of Biggie Smalls. Great article. The cartoons are fun too.

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