The Ghost Map Book Summary, by Steven Johnson

Want to learn the ideas in The Ghost Map better than ever? Read the world’s #1 book summary of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson here.

Read a brief 1-Page Summary or watch video summaries curated by our expert team. Note: this book guide is not affiliated with or endorsed by the publisher or author, and we always encourage you to purchase and read the full book.

Video Summaries of The Ghost Map

We’ve scoured the Internet for the very best videos on The Ghost Map, from high-quality videos summaries to interviews or commentary by Steven Johnson.

1-Page Summary of The Ghost Map

Overall Summary

Chapter 1

In the 19th century, there were a lot of poor people in London who survived by going through trash. There were three kinds of scavengers: pure-finders, toshers and bone-pickers. Pure finders made their living collecting dog excrement while bone pickers picked meat off thrown away carcasses. In short, the scavengers lived in a world of excrement and death. The city was filled with people who sorted through trash at night because it was profitable to do so; they had become an important part of society for disposing garbage.

Recycling is an ancient practice. In the Middle Ages, farmers recycled waste to help their soil grow better plants and food. Also, in nature, microbes recycle waste so that life can continue. However, they also threatened to destroy London’s population of humans by spreading cholera through water and food supplies during a heat wave in 1854.

As is the case with all societies, there were classes in London as well. The lower class consisted of those who collected excrement from the city and disposed of it. They earned a good wage thanks to their physically demanding work. As time passed, these people began making more money because they had to travel farther to dispose of the waste. The middle class was made up of those who invented toilets (i.e., water closets). This invention led to an increase in water usage which caused sewers to overflow and created filthier conditions than ever before.

As the city of London grew, it experienced a surge in corpses. The dead bodies of the poor were often buried in mass graves—a sight that inspired Charles Dickens to write about how civilization and barbarism walk together. Meanwhile, Karl Marx was living there and his impressions of decay led him to create Communism.

At one point, people in London believed that bad smells and dead bodies spread disease. However, they were completely wrong about this because the poor lived in cramped quarters where diseases spread more rapidly. In Soho Field for example, there had once been a mass burial of plague victims; however, it wasn’t until years later that people began to live there again. Soon after that, Soho became one of the hippest places in London and attracted artists and intellectuals who made it even more popular than before. By 1850s Soho was also densely populated with narrow streets like most other parts of London which was why many rich people blamed the poor for catching diseases when really it was their own fault due to living conditions.

In the 1840s, Thomas Lewis was a police officer living in Soho with his wife Sarah and their child. Their first child died after ten months, but they had another one. In 1854, baby Lewis started vomiting and excreting around six in the morning. So Sarah threw away her soiled diapers into a cesspool in her basement. This is how it began (the cholera epidemic).

Chapter 2

In the days after a child fell ill, life went on as usual. Not too far away from the Lewis family was Henry Whitehead, a clergyman who loved to spend his time in taverns and talking about politics or philosophy with friends. Since 1851 he had been at St. Luke’s church, where he helped people living in Soho slums because of their poverty and filthiness; there was even an abbatoir nearby.

On September 2, 1854, Thomas Whitehead walked to a coffee shop on the way to a military factory. He was friendly and knew many people in the area. At this time, Charles Dickens’ latest novel, Hard Times, which is about life for poor city residents, was being serialized. It’s possible that he talked with someone at the coffee shop about it or mentioned it to someone there. However, no one discussed cholera with him that day.

The Ghost Map Book Summary, by Steven Johnson

Enjoy this summary?

Subscribe to get my next book summary in your email.