Damned if we do?

Something like 20 years ago when I was a publishing newbie I came across a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about a rare disease in Africa that was positively biblical in its devastation.  I was, of course, immediately obsessed with this gruesome hemorrhagic fever whose survival rate was statistically negligible.  Frankly, and shamefully, I thought it was a great horror story and one happening far enough away that it posed no real threat to a young woman in New York City who wasn’t planning on traveling to remote parts of Africa any time soon.   I desperately wanted someone to do a book about it.   Jane, who was bemused by my weird enthusiasms (she’s grown accustomed to them in the two decades since), and I tried to contact a couple of journalists who might have direct access to information on the ground.  But while we were casting about without the help of e-mail and Skype,  it was announced that Richard Preston was working on The Hot Zone.  We had been scooped.

Preston’s book became a huge bestseller and it spawned a successful film.  Ebola entered the public’s consciousness much in the way it had for me, as something horrific that didn’t really affect us but which titillated us with the kind of fear a zombie movie might instill.  Today, of course, the threat is far more real and, with our porous borders, far less “over there.”  The world is quickly realizing that the spread of Ebola is a global health crisis and one that must be stopped in its tracks if we are to avoid even more catastrophic losses of human life.

So, as I obsessively read the headlines and listen to reports on NPR, I think, again, that a new book on the disease’s trajectory this time around is necessary and even imperative.  Except that the more mature me is  aware of the negative psychic and moral implications of capitalizing on tragedy in a way my much more clueless younger self was not.  And so once again an uncomfortable aspect of our business rears its head.  When is it too soon to write about tragedy?  What is the correct way to hype a big book touching on the suffering of thousands?  We in the publishing world, like journalists, are responsible for midwifing work that illuminates, enlightens, educates, and entertains.  But, we’re not in the trenches risking life and limb to get the story and making money off tragic events is sometimes hard to stomach.  So, do we pursue that book now or do we wait?

There are fascinating stories coming out of this current crisis and not just one book, I’m sure.  Where do you guys fall on the subject?  Should there be another Hot Zone?

3 Responses to Damned if we do?

  1. When I was researching “Rapture,” I started reading a lot about epidemiology and emerging viruses. The best — and this predates “The Hot Zone” by about a year — was “Dancing Matrix: How Science Confronts Emerging Viruses” by Robin Marantz Henig. The book addressed not just ebola but a wide range of exotic diseases that could become more common place in our shrinking world at a time when antibiotic resistance is on the rise. One of the points made in the book was that we were long overdue for a pandemic (and this was back in the early 1990s); the facts on the ground haven’t changed much since then (as evidenced by the current scare). That all being said, I guess I come down on the side that knowledge is strength and anything that can be done to educate the public is justified (even if it happens to make money in the process). I vote yes.

  2. Judith Burnett Schneider says:

    Miriam, as a young scientist at the time, I too became obsessed with Ebola in the 80s. My husband and I greedily purchased two copies of the book because neither of us wanted to wait for the other to finish reading. We re-read the book before the movie came out, then saw the film. In fact, I re-read it every few years. The virus exists a perpetual, serious threat to humanity.

    My daughter is currently working on her Ph.D. in Immunology (she’s in a Malaria lab), so — of course — I asked her what she thought about bringing the first doctor to this country for treatment. Her words exactly: “It will progress from an epidemic to a pandemic.” That was eight weeks ago. And look where we are, today, with the first death of a patient here and the recent death of a nurse in Spain.

    With that being said, I agree with Dave above. It’s the knowledge we need, and where better to gain that knowledge than from a book written by an expert — or a widespread group of experts, not just those from the CDC? As an organic chemist, I hold the CDC in the highest regard. However, I question the thought processes behind the decision to bring the first Ebola patient to the U.S. Did they do so for the shear scientific challenge, sacrificing the responsibility they have to doing what it best for world health?

    Work on the book, Miriam. We need it! And if a few people make money in the process, good for them. I’ve thrown away many dollars on books with sagging middles that I didn’t even finish. Buying this book will be money well spent!


  3. Miriam says:

    Dave and Judith, I really like that you guys advocate for the “information is power” side of the issue. I agree that well curated books are an invaluable resource both in the practical and the time capsule sense. Hopefully, we will be able to look back on this outbreak as a pandemic avoided and learn some lessons about how to handle the next threat.

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