On Immunity: An Inoculation Info

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The hugely acclaimed New York Times
Best Seller, now available in paperback!

*A National
Book Critics Circle Award Finalist*

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS
OF 2014:

The New York Times Book Review (Top 10),
Entertainment Weekly (Top 10), New York Magazine,
Chicago Tribune (Top 10), Publishers Weekly (Top 10),
Time Out New York (Top 10), Los Angeles Times,
Kirkus, Booklist, NPR's Science Friday,
Newsday, Slate, Refinery 29, and many
more...

In this bold, fascinating book, Eula Biss addresses our
fear of the government, the medical establishment, and what may be in
our children's air, food, mattresses, medicines, and vaccines.
Reflecting on her own experience as a new mother, she suggests that we
cannot immunize our children, or ourselves, against the world. As she
explores the metaphors surrounding immunity, Biss extends her
conversations with other mothers to meditations on the myth of Achilles,
Voltaire's Candide, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Rachel
Carson's Silent Spring, Susan Sontag's AIDS and Its
Metaphors
, and beyond. On Immunity is an inoculation against
our fear and a moving account of how we are all interconnected-our
bodies and our fates.


Average Ratings and Reviews
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Reviews for On Immunity: An Inoculation:

5

Sep 17, 2014

Just lovely: so thoughtful and empathetic and intellectually wide-ranging. I've often wondered why people--privileged, educated people, no less--choose not to vaccinate their children, disregarding scientific evidence and social responsibility. I've especially wondered why this position seems so unassailable, why even people I consider friends are so closed to discussion on this one topic although they are open-minded about so much else.

Eula Biss bridges the gap, exposes the power of irrational Just lovely: so thoughtful and empathetic and intellectually wide-ranging. I've often wondered why people--privileged, educated people, no less--choose not to vaccinate their children, disregarding scientific evidence and social responsibility. I've especially wondered why this position seems so unassailable, why even people I consider friends are so closed to discussion on this one topic although they are open-minded about so much else.

Eula Biss bridges the gap, exposes the power of irrational fears, shows compassion for this strange choice even as she avoids making the same mistake for her own child. Her investigation of the history of vaccination is thorough and wonderfully written. Everything is political, we are reminded. People are highly resistant to coercion, especially from those whose motives they suspect. And there's a long history of associating vaccination with the very contamination it is intended to prevent.

An amazing read whether you're a parent struggling with this decision yourself, a parent who has already got a firm opinion, a non-parent wondering why on earth this has become such an issue, or just an interested reader curious about this cultural moment where we find ourselves. ...more
5

Nov 23, 2018

A meditation on American culture's conception of illness, On Immunity takes on the misinformation and paranoia surrounding vaccination. In precise and moving prose, Eula Biss tracks the global history of immunization, critiques the act of describing public and private health through militaristic metaphors, reflects on her experience of motherhood, considers the ways in which cultural cornerstones such as Dracula represent disease, and deconstructs common arguments against vaccination. The short A meditation on American culture's conception of illness, On Immunity takes on the misinformation and paranoia surrounding vaccination. In precise and moving prose, Eula Biss tracks the global history of immunization, critiques the act of describing public and private health through militaristic metaphors, reflects on her experience of motherhood, considers the ways in which cultural cornerstones such as Dracula represent disease, and deconstructs common arguments against vaccination. The short book unfolds in a series of impressionistic chapters that, in spite of the author's eclectic interests, rarely feel disconnected from each other. It's astounding how many topics Biss brings under the central concept of immunity, from the racial wealth gap in America to the philosophical writings of Voltaire, and On Immunity easily has been one of my favorite reads of the fall. ...more
3

Oct 03, 2014

This book isn't what I thought. I expected a historical record of the development of vaccines as well as a debate about whether or not parents should vaccinate their children and I got that -- for the first few chapters. Then Biss launched into a serious of personal essays about the birth of her son, taking him for shots and obsessing about the transfusion she had to get following labor. Honestly, the book should have been called "Transfusion" because she never shut up about it. You'd think no This book isn't what I thought. I expected a historical record of the development of vaccines as well as a debate about whether or not parents should vaccinate their children and I got that -- for the first few chapters. Then Biss launched into a serious of personal essays about the birth of her son, taking him for shots and obsessing about the transfusion she had to get following labor. Honestly, the book should have been called "Transfusion" because she never shut up about it. You'd think no one had ever needed to get blood from a stranger before. Instead of focusing on being thankful for a modern day medical marvel, she worried herself to death about the process.

This was followed by a bunch of chapters about "Dracula", the legend and the novel by Bram Stoker. While this might have been mildly interesting in a college essay, I'm not sure how it tied into the topic of vaccines despite all of Biss's mental calisthenics.

If you're looking for a serious book about the vaccine debate, I'd look elsewhere.
...more
4

Oct 26, 2014

Those of us who identify as what is called "pro-vax"--parents who not only vaccinate their children, but who feel passionately about it--are not exactly shrinking violets. Frankly, we can't afford to be--although the vast majority of parents vaccinate their children, we do it as a matter of course for the most part, and do not feel a driving need to speak up about having done so, any more than we brag about taking our kids to the dentist. However, this silence has allowed a vocal and dangerous Those of us who identify as what is called "pro-vax"--parents who not only vaccinate their children, but who feel passionately about it--are not exactly shrinking violets. Frankly, we can't afford to be--although the vast majority of parents vaccinate their children, we do it as a matter of course for the most part, and do not feel a driving need to speak up about having done so, any more than we brag about taking our kids to the dentist. However, this silence has allowed a vocal and dangerous minority of no-vax, slow-vax, and anti-vax parents to dominate the conversation about immunization, to disastrous effects. We're faced now with measles outbreaks, pertussis clusters which have killed infants, even mumps outbreaks in college kids this year. Because we're so passionate, and because the other side is equally passionate, debates can devolve into shouting matches. One side braying about "science and research" while the other side spouts nonsense about a worldwide conspiracy of silence and "vaccine injuries." It's rarely productive.

Although she vaccinates her children, no one would mistake author Eula Biss as a "pro-vax" parent. And in some ways, that's exactly what this conversation needs. I consider Eula Biss the closest thing we have to our generation's Joan Didion. She shares many of the same stylistic tics, has the same careful, analytic mind, the same elegant literary sensibility, and, most markedly, the same ability to take current anxieties, identify with them, even experience them herself, and them step back and examine them like an archaeologist might examine a shard of Minoan pottery. From bloodletting and bloodsucking (pre-twentieth century medicine and Bram Stoker's Dracula, respectively) to the politics of wealth and education when it comes to the decision to vaccinate, Biss carefully weaves the fears of vaccines, and more broadly, parenthood itself with timeless themes of chaos and lack of control.

There were times I felt Eula Biss was too careful. She refers to the country's most vocal and, in my opinion, dangerous fearmongerer, Barbara Loe Fisher, as a "consumer advocate." There is an endnote that describes in more detail Fisher's role in the anti-vaccine movement, but I was disappointed to see her described in this positive manner in the body of the book. BIss's father, a doctor, at one point dismisses anti-vaxxers as idiots, and Eula Biss states unequivocally that they're not. No doubt there are those who are intelligent but misguided. But there is a deep vein of paranoid, conspiracy-mindedness that goes along with anti-vaccine ideas, and she doesn't touch this. In fact, she doesn't address the fact that the most common arguments anti-vaxxers use to sway parents from vaccinating are not based in science. In fact, they are mostly proved incorrect by science. There was a conversation about the catastrophic effect the fraudulent Wakefield study had on the vaccination rates in the U.S and the U.K., and she mentions that the IOM did an exhaustive review of the literature and found absolutely no connection between vaccines and autism. But I was concerned with the lack of acknowledgment about the scientific illiteracy question, particularly because it ties in so naturally with other dangerous belief systems that can or will cause real and lasting damage to humanity (i.e. climate change denialism).

That being said, I was enraptured as I read this book, which felt--and perhaps intentionally so--addressed to me specifically. In fact, Biss says in one of her endnotes (and be sure to read the endnotes straight through--they're an integral part of the book) that she chose to write the book to mothers, not because fathers are any less important as caregivers, but because she feels many of the anxieties about which she writes are specific to mothers. An interesting approach. A brilliant writer. ...more
4

Mar 11, 2015

On Immunity: An Inoculation



Eula Biss, the author of "On Immunization: An Inoculation" is the daughter of a poet and a doctor. She is herself a poet and a renowned essayist, this creates a seemingly absurd but interesting background that I think allows her to bring a unique perspective to an issue that could be otherwise tedious and dull.

Before reading this book, I never considered that the subject of immunizations was as complex and vast as it is. But as I learned our seemingly never ending On Immunity: An Inoculation



Eula Biss, the author of "On Immunization: An Inoculation" is the daughter of a poet and a doctor. She is herself a poet and a renowned essayist, this creates a seemingly absurd but interesting background that I think allows her to bring a unique perspective to an issue that could be otherwise tedious and dull.

Before reading this book, I never considered that the subject of immunizations was as complex and vast as it is. But as I learned our seemingly never ending argument about vaccines is not only a health issue, it is also a political/economic/philosophical/ theological and bio-ethical debate.

"On Immunization: An Inoculation", provides a very comprehensive, rational and thorough research of vaccines and their history, how they are developed, why they are so controversial and why we feared them so much. Bliss's takes a nuanced approach on the issue and although she comes strongly on the side that favors the widespread use of vaccines, she seems to make a a point of being respectful of people that are on both sides of the so called "vaccination debate".

The rise of the anti-vaccine movement in the United States, has created an unusual alliance across some extreme ideological political lines. On the left side of the spectrum, we have liberals skeptic of pharmaceuticals companies that developed, patent, manufacture and aggressively market vaccines, on the right there are conservatives and libertarians that held a cynical view of government and its involvement in monitoring, distributing and regulating them.

I should also mentioned that the issue of vaccines and the discussion of their potential side effects touches me on a personal level.

As the mother of a boy who was diagnosed with Autism at 2 1/2 years-old, I experienced a fair amount of apprehension when deciding whether or not my child should continue receiving all his immunization shots and if so, if he was to get them on the schedule recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and his pediatrician.

In 2007 when a neurologist screened my son for Autism we were just starting to notice a significant increase in the amount of kids in the United States and other parts of the world, that were being diagnosed with Autism. This trend was and still is, particularly noticeable among boys in that 2 to 6 age-range.

Right in the middle of this turmoil, a friend gave me Jenny McCarthy's book, "Louder Than Words", I didn't even know who Ms. McCarthy was until I read her book. As a general rule, I try not to take medical advice from celebrities and people that don't have a scientific background, but I confess that McCarthy's candid tell about her experiences in dealing with an Autistic son hit a nerve with me at the time.

It was a difficult and unnerving experience because back then, there was so much to learn about the whole Autism spectrum, its causes, best treatments and whether or not we had reliable studies confirming or denying a link between the MMR (Measles, Mumps & Rubella) vaccine and the outbreak of Autism we were facing.

So I did my best to research the issue, discussed the matter with my child doctors and ultimately decided to err on the side of caution: when outweighing the risks of not being immunized vs. the non-proven risks that linked Autism to the MMR vaccine, the former was scarier than the latter.

Of course, Autism is not the only sickness that many have linked to immunizations, vaccines have been blamed for everything from allergies to cancer. They also carry inherent and real risks that although statistically small, should be part of this discussion.

It was also a personal experience, the birth of her son and the question of whether to vaccinate him, that propelled Ms.Bliss to research the issue of vaccines so thoroughly.

The book reads as a collection of essays and at it starts with Bliss's interesting connection of Greek mythology (Achilles was "made immune to injure but not to heal") and Gothic horror (Dracula demonstrates our deep fears of contagion) with the overall theme of our fears over the practice of immunization. The idea of contaminating our children with the very hazard we hope to avoid sounds indeed almost mythological.



"The Life of Achilles" by Rubens shows the infant Achilles immersed by his mother in the River Styx trying to make him immortal.

Bliss looks at our unease with immunization as a metaphor that reflects on the larger fears and anxieties we have regarding government intervention, unethical medical and pharmaceutical companies and our overall predisposition to distrusts the injection of anything that doesn't feel "natural" into our bodies. These fears seemed to be particularly enhanced when it comes to making decisions that affect our children.

"Our fears," Bliss warns, "are informed by history and economics, by social power and stigma, by myths and nightmares.... When we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs, … we tend to doubt the information, not ourselves."

There's a good reason why metaphors are widely used by politicians, think tanks and legislators in an effort to (re))define the framework in which health issues are discussed. "If thoughts corrupts language", George Orwell famously said "language can also corrupt thought".

Bliss recounts the results of a research that found that "whenever two issues are metaphorically linked, manipulating a person's attitude towards one can affect how one thinks about the other". Think of the infamous "death panels" during the The Affordable Health Care(ACA) debate for example.

The author also takes some time to explore the history of vaccines, debunks some falsehoods about them and explores the links between class, race and gender as they relate to this issue.

"On Immunization", delves into the origins of vaccinations, we learn for example that in 18th century England, milkmaids were known not to be affected by the small pox epidemic. It was almost common knowledge among farmers that the milkmaids that endured blisters in their hands were immune to the virus even when nursing victims of the disease. In 1774 and to the dismay of his neighbors, a farmer decided to inject pus from an infected cow into the arms of his wife and sons. Although the wife got ill, she recovered eventually and the sons experienced only mild symptoms. After this experience they were exposed to the disease on multiple occasions but never got infected. The term vaccine actually comes from the Latin "vacca", which means cow.

Bliss also makes an important moral and social argument in favor of immunizations: vaccines protect not only those that have been immunized, but also those that for different reasons, are unable to do so. This includes people with impaired immune systems, pregnant women and people that are too young or too old.

We all have probably heard the term "herd immunization"(a term that unfortunately has a very negative connotation), it refers to "a means of protecting a whole community from disease by immunizing a critical mass of its populace." In order for herd immunity to work a certain percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated. Unfortunately in the case of many diseases we don't know for sure where that minimum threshold is until we reached the tipping point. Consider this, according to the Center for Disease Control's web site, as of the year 2000 the United States declared that the Measles was eliminated from this country, now is back thanks to the growing rate of non-vaccination.

Bliss expands this concept by pointing out that "from birth onward our bodies are a shared space" and seriously challenges our illusion of our independent bodies, "we resist vaccinations in pat because we want to rule ourselves". In a way, this debate reflects our never-ending search for a perfect balance between the interest of the collective vs. the rights of the individual. This is indeed a very American dilemma...



"Narcissus at the pool" was on the cover of Science in a 2002 edition that was dedicated to "Reflections on Self: Immunity and Beyond". The concept of Self is fundamental to the science of immunity.


Ultimately when addressing our fears and deep skepticism regarding vaccines, the author calls for us to consider this debate from a more reasonable perspective: Does it makes sense to be more afraid of the inoculation than the disease?

By 2004, the 1998 British study that originally linked the MMR vaccine to Autism has been thoroughly debunked and retracted. As Bliss states, "Science is "self-correcting", meaning that errors in preliminary studies are ideally revealed by subsequent ones", unfortunately in the case of the this paper, it lives forever in the viral world of hoaxes and misinformation that are part of the internet.

Bliss cites scientist Richard Feynman as saying "Knowledge is, by its nature, incomplete" and she indicates that this also applies to poetry, the poet John Keats frames this as ""negative capability". She mentions that her mother, also a poet, "has instilled this ability in me since I was a child". As a mother and as a poet she says "You have to erase yourself", meaning abandon what I think I know, or "live the questions our children raise for us".

Finally I have to say that I wish "On Immunization", would had been available to me in those difficult days when I was agonizing about my son and considering the best choices concerning his health. But I am glad to say that he's a happy, highly functioning, well adjusted 12-year old. He still have some issues to overcome but he does attends a regular public school and enjoys a dynamic and healthy social life. I hesitate to use the word "normal" when referring to him, but I have come to learn that "normal" is highly overrated.


***********************************************************************On 03/24/15 Frontline aired a one-hour special on vaccinations called "The Vaccine Wars"
Here's a link to watch online:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontli...




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2

Oct 23, 2014

There was a lot of very informative and insightful material in On Immunity. I liked the section focused on perceptions of risk, where the belief of the validity of a particular risk by many people in society is often at odds with quantifiable facts. I also enjoyed the metaphorical comparisons that Eula Biss makes in our language and our exaggerated scientific studies, both of which contribute to our general fear of vaccinations. But, I felt the book didn't quite work for me. My biggest problem There was a lot of very informative and insightful material in On Immunity. I liked the section focused on perceptions of risk, where the belief of the validity of a particular risk by many people in society is often at odds with quantifiable facts. I also enjoyed the metaphorical comparisons that Eula Biss makes in our language and our exaggerated scientific studies, both of which contribute to our general fear of vaccinations. But, I felt the book didn't quite work for me. My biggest problem is with the transitions to literary references like Dracula and Candide. Sure, I get the metaphorical implications, but some of them seem awfully far-fetched and those that appear to support her point don't always fit the book structurally. Consequently, the book is disjointed and messy more often that not. A stronger editorial hand was required here to elevate her strong points and eliminate her redundant literary diatribes. ...more
4

Mar 23, 2015

Eula Biss isn’t a scientist; she’s an award-winning non-fiction writer and a mother. But based on On Immunity: An Inoculation, she’s clearly done copious amounts of research. The book is a personal, impressionistic, fascinating look at the history of immunity, from those 18th century English milkmaids with cowpox who miraculously found themselves immune to smallpox to the crazy (and dangerous) theories of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy.

Biss has a poet’s ear, and recognizes all the connotations Eula Biss isn’t a scientist; she’s an award-winning non-fiction writer and a mother. But based on On Immunity: An Inoculation, she’s clearly done copious amounts of research. The book is a personal, impressionistic, fascinating look at the history of immunity, from those 18th century English milkmaids with cowpox who miraculously found themselves immune to smallpox to the crazy (and dangerous) theories of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy.

Biss has a poet’s ear, and recognizes all the connotations of a scientific term like “herd immunity” (“it suggests that we are cattle, waiting, perhaps, to be sent to slaughter”) and takes apart the contradictions of the much-used word “natural” (“What natural has come to mean to us in the context of medicine is pure and safe and benign.”)

This book is in the spirit of Susan Sontag’s Illness And Metaphor and AIDS And Its Metaphors, both of which Biss mentions. She’s very sensitive to how disease has been linked with fear of “the other.” There’s a fascinating section on the legend of Dracula. And during the smallpox epidemic of 1898, the disease was called, variously, “the Nigger itch,” “the Italian itch,” and “the Mexican bump.” Seriously.

Biss also suggests that the frontier mentality of Americans might account for the anti-vaccers: “we imagine our bodies as isolated homesteads that we tend either well or badly. The health of the homestead next to ours does not affect us, this thinking suggests, so long as ours is well tended.”

Biss grounds the book with stories about her own fears of being a new mom, but also looks abroad. Most horrifying is the story of vaccine providers in Pakistan and Nigeria being murdered by extremist groups because it was thought they were giving them AIDS or sterilizing Muslim girls.

Closer to home, there’s the Nashville woman who handed out chickenpox lollipops. And there’s the disturbing demonization campaign against Dr. Paul A. Offit, a pediatrician who co-invented the rotavirus vaccine. To discredit him, he was being called "Dr. Proffit" to create the illusion that the vaccine was simply a way for him to make money. (In fact, vaccines are costly to develop and generate only modest profits.)

The book isn't a page-turner, by any means, but rather a thoughtful, meditative book about a timeless topic that affects everyone on the planet. ...more
2

Oct 02, 2014

Wow, not what I expected. I agree with Rebecca's review below. I was wanting a more factual/historical read, but instead this book was ALL OVER THE PLACE. The chapters weren't arranged chronologically, or in any logical way whatsoever. You start a new chapter where she talks about when her son was born, but in the previous chapter he was 4 years old. She talks way too much about vaccinating her son, her father being a doctor, and a blood transfusion she once received. The title should be more Wow, not what I expected. I agree with Rebecca's review below. I was wanting a more factual/historical read, but instead this book was ALL OVER THE PLACE. The chapters weren't arranged chronologically, or in any logical way whatsoever. You start a new chapter where she talks about when her son was born, but in the previous chapter he was 4 years old. She talks way too much about vaccinating her son, her father being a doctor, and a blood transfusion she once received. The title should be more like, "My Personal Opinions on Vaccinating My Son" ...more
4

Jul 11, 2014

When she first became a mother, professor and essayist Eula Biss took the opportunity to reconsider inoculation. She’d never given it much thought before, but in an American culture of paranoia about everything from bird flu to food additives, it was impossible not to ask what risks she was exposing her son to, and whether they were worth it. In a wide-ranging cultural history reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors, she delves into the facts, myths and metaphors surrounding When she first became a mother, professor and essayist Eula Biss took the opportunity to reconsider inoculation. She’d never given it much thought before, but in an American culture of paranoia about everything from bird flu to food additives, it was impossible not to ask what risks she was exposing her son to, and whether they were worth it. In a wide-ranging cultural history reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors, she delves into the facts, myths and metaphors surrounding immunization. This book powerfully captures the modern phenomenon of feeling simultaneously responsible and powerless. Biss reminds us that “what heals may harm and the sum of science is not always progress.” A short, well-constructed argument, well worth reading.

(See my full review at Nudge.) ...more
1

Dec 05, 2014

Thank you to Eula Biss for pushing me to return to goodreads. I felt as though this was the only place I could properly voice my disappointment in this book. As focused as a broken telescope I have to wonder with what scandalous info she blackmailed her editor. Her use of metaphors are like a clean-up hitter shooting a three point shot during the superbowl and coming up short only to get an icing call on the final lap. ...or should I say it is like a vampire quoting Sontag but only to support Thank you to Eula Biss for pushing me to return to goodreads. I felt as though this was the only place I could properly voice my disappointment in this book. As focused as a broken telescope I have to wonder with what scandalous info she blackmailed her editor. Her use of metaphors are like a clean-up hitter shooting a three point shot during the superbowl and coming up short only to get an icing call on the final lap. ...or should I say it is like a vampire quoting Sontag but only to support Kierkegaards theories about Dr. Bob and Frankenstein. Wait...weren't we supposed to be talking about vaccinations? I thought so too. Much like the cover of the book only shows 20% of P.P. Ruben's "Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the river Styx", this book only scratches the surface of any real research done into the world of vaccines. Muddled among misguided literary references and the airing of her own personal demons are the oases of pure quotes from existent research. For anyone truly interested in vaccines and the pros and (imagined) cons of them I would recommend reading the "Selected Sources" portion of this book and finding out the complete information on your own. ...more
5

May 26, 2016

Rating 6* out of 5. I have never read anything like this in my life. I am not talking about the subject in itself, because actually none of the facts presented here were new to me. I have read about them before. What is different is how Eula Biss pieces together fact and mythology (Greek and vampirical) together with her own experiences as a first time mother to make a case for vaccination. She does this so gently, so expertly, that surely not even the anti-vaccination faction could take Rating 6* out of 5. I have never read anything like this in my life. I am not talking about the subject in itself, because actually none of the facts presented here were new to me. I have read about them before. What is different is how Eula Biss pieces together fact and mythology (Greek and vampirical) together with her own experiences as a first time mother to make a case for vaccination. She does this so gently, so expertly, that surely not even the anti-vaccination faction could take offense. Biss is sympathetic where I would have been arrogant.

I got this book in the post on Thursday. I had already started something else, but I thought I would read a couple of pages while warming up dinner. I was immediately hooked. I had been afraid that this would be a technical and complicated book that would require some additional effort on my part, but it is not. This is a very easy book, compelling, fascinating, deeply personal and written for the lay man. All you need is basic reading comprehension. This should be mandatory reading.

"After leaving the cemetery I remarked to my father that I had noticed the graves of five-year-olds and ten-year-olds and a number of teenagers, but that I was surprised not to have seen, in one of the oldest cemeteries in Chicago, the graves of any babies. This, my father reminded me, was probably because infants died in such large numbers during the nineteenth century that they were not routinely buried in marked graves. Later, I would learn that one out of every ten children born in 1900 died before their first birthdays. I would read this ina report on vaccine side effects, which concluded its brief historical overview of child mortality with the observation that now 'children are expected to survive to adulthood.'"

Think about it. Up until recent history, even in the Western world, child mortality was a fact everyone had to live with. Even when children did not die, they could suffer consequences for the rest of their lives, as with polio. Antibiotics are also a recent invention, and a respite from infections that will quickly come to an end because of over-use.

"For several nights while my son had croup I sat with him for most of the night, holding him upright while he slept so that he could breathe more easily. There was nothing else I could do for him. I traveled back in time then, or so I felt, passing through a space-time rift into what I imagined might have been the experience of a mother a hundred years ago, when faux-croup could just as easily have been killing croup. I thought of the mothers in Daniel Defoe's 'A Journal of the Plague Year' who were said to have died after losing their children - not of the plague, but of grief."

"However we choose to think of the social body, we are each other's environment. Immunity is a shared space - a garden we tend together."

I cannot do this book justice. It is a call for greater good. It is deeply intellectual and philosphical work, written so that anyone can grasp its concepts. READ IT! ...more
2

Jan 01, 2015

This is a thoughtful discussion of illness and immunity that pays particular attention to the controversies surrounding vaccines. And there is no doubt the author invested a great deal of research and thinking in this. Be warned, however, that it is less straightforward narrative than a bricolage of her own memories, readings and musings, which can be, at times, difficult. For example, early in the book, Biss moves from Kierkegaard, to the Doppler effect, to O negative blood and then to the idea This is a thoughtful discussion of illness and immunity that pays particular attention to the controversies surrounding vaccines. And there is no doubt the author invested a great deal of research and thinking in this. Be warned, however, that it is less straightforward narrative than a bricolage of her own memories, readings and musings, which can be, at times, difficult. For example, early in the book, Biss moves from Kierkegaard, to the Doppler effect, to O negative blood and then to the idea we owe each other our bodies. This elliptical strategy allows her to include a range of reflections, but as a reader I did find myself feeling lost, from time to time. I also found the system of ‘Notes’ exasperating. They include important material but they’re buried at the back of the book, and there is no indication in the text that you’ve just read something on which there is further comment. One must keep a thumb at the back and continually check to see when the next note should be read. Alas, this is not the book I was expecting, or hoping for, especially considering the effusive blurbs on the back cover. ...more
5

Aug 02, 2014

I can't reveal much about this brilliant personal critique of America's culture of doubt surrounding vaccines, because I'm getting paid (for once) to write about it elsewhere (the next edition of the American Writers reference series, not due out until 2016). But I will echo what others are saying -- Biss has inherited the critical inquiry skills of Susan Sontag and Joan Didion and merged them with the research focus of Rebecca Solnit. The whole short book (164 pages, followed by 40 pages of I can't reveal much about this brilliant personal critique of America's culture of doubt surrounding vaccines, because I'm getting paid (for once) to write about it elsewhere (the next edition of the American Writers reference series, not due out until 2016). But I will echo what others are saying -- Biss has inherited the critical inquiry skills of Susan Sontag and Joan Didion and merged them with the research focus of Rebecca Solnit. The whole short book (164 pages, followed by 40 pages of endnotes and bibliography) pierces like a needle (haha, see what I did there?) to the core of her own fears, doubts, and confidences as she sees the world of threats differently through her own eyes as a new mother. Buy this book now -- it's bound to be an award winner for 2014. ...more
0

Mar 02, 2015

Despite the fact that this book has been deemed one of the best non-fiction books of 2014, it completely took me by surprise. By combining historical information and personal essays, Biss takes on the hot button topic of vaccinations and brings it to a level that can appeal to anyone. Plus she is able to take the idea of vampires and our cultural history with those creatures and integrate them into our current cultural fear of vaccinations. Without shaming people who may be wary of vaccines and Despite the fact that this book has been deemed one of the best non-fiction books of 2014, it completely took me by surprise. By combining historical information and personal essays, Biss takes on the hot button topic of vaccinations and brings it to a level that can appeal to anyone. Plus she is able to take the idea of vampires and our cultural history with those creatures and integrate them into our current cultural fear of vaccinations. Without shaming people who may be wary of vaccines and providing her own personal stories of motherhood, Biss does a really fantastic job explaining how we have vaccines, what they can do compared to what we think they can do, and why they are so important. — Rincey Abraham



From The Best Books We Read In February: http://bookriot.com/2015/03/02/riot-r... ...more
4

Apr 18, 2019

4.5 stars -- this was a very emotional read for me, one that I almost resented. But ultimately, I could not deny the beauty of the writing or the thoughtfulness of Biss' consideration of ourselves as bodies interconnected to one another in so many different ways.
4

Dec 01, 2014

“Immunity is a shared space – a garden we tend together.”

Eula Biss has written a fine argument and defense for the importance of vaccination in our society.

When I was in high school, we had a contest between other school debate teams called The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, named for the famous candidates in the 1858 Senate race in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Even though Lincoln didn’t win the debate in 1858, his opinions won the popular vote, and the debates helped launch his “Immunity is a shared space – a garden we tend together.”

Eula Biss has written a fine argument and defense for the importance of vaccination in our society.

When I was in high school, we had a contest between other school debate teams called The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, named for the famous candidates in the 1858 Senate race in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Even though Lincoln didn’t win the debate in 1858, his opinions won the popular vote, and the debates helped launch his career and popularity. Just two years later, Lincoln would become President.

Biss has made nearly every “best of” list this year for On Immunity. Like Lincoln, it seems her ideas and arguments resound with the public, or at the very least, with journalists and media. With public health being such a hot topic and a theme for 2014, I can see why.

This book reads like a persuasive speech, a treatise meant to dispute the idea that vaccinations are harmful and should be avoided. The most popular theory is that vaccinations cause autism, a theory I admittedly once entertained. As Biss points out (I’ve come to the same conclusion through my own research), the idea that vaccinations cause autism is unfounded and has been proven false through several unbiased studies.

There are several intriguing metaphors in the book that are quite near perfect, the idea of disease and inoculation, like vampires and Dracula, being interconnected with the collective and individual body, both reliant and harmful.

Unfortunately, I also had a few problems with this book. First, I think her political ideology often gets in the way. To make a case for the benefit of immunization, something that you actually need everyone to agree on, it might not be best to quote Karl Marx and compare capitalism to Dracula,

“The drive toward capital, as Dracula suggests, is inherently inhumane. We are justified in feeling threatened by the unlimited expansion of industry, and we are justified in fearing our interests are secondary to corporate interests.”

While I understand her point, I think this could alienate a large population of people (people that are needed in order for her arguments to work) and supposes that everyone involved has evil vampire motives. This shaming of Wall Street, corporate America, and everyone that transcribes to it is also somewhat hypocritical. After all, guess who’s got shareholders and big players in this evil game? Amazon (AMZN), Barnes & Noble (BKS), New York Times Co (NYT), which are all the reasons and distribution channels that have made this very book successful, not to mention the countless pharmaceutical and medical supply companies that make even the idea of public immunization possible. This book was published by Graywolf Press, a non-profit, but even they accept stock gifts: https://www.graywolfpress.org/about-u.... What’s more capitalistic than the stock market?

I’m not defending capitalism. I understand its problems of inequality and excess. I’m just pointing out that if you are going to demonize a system (comparing it to a blood-sucking Dracula), at least acknowledge that you’re also a part of it.

I also wonder if her political bias shielded her from seeing the bi-partisan efforts that are happening right now to immunize entire areas of the world. She touched on the subject of global immunization a few times, but did not once acknowledge the current and massive efforts to vaccinate against HPV in Africa, a virus that causes cervical cancer and threatens to end the lives of millions.

This is a project that extended from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which provided antiretroviral treatment to millions infected with HIV and is the largest health initiative ever initiated by one country to address a disease. It was started in 2002 by President Bush and has been extended by President Obama. Why did Biss not mention these efforts? I hope this slight was not political, but based on her obvious political orientation, it was hard not to think so.

(By the way, my defense of any side doesn’t indicate I’m one or the other. I just don’t prefer political bias in my books. On either side.)

Biss shines in her idea of lowering the self for the collective good. In my mind, this is exactly the way I want to live my own life, to put my needs second to the needs of others. To me, that is the most fulfilling life. Admittedly, I often fail in my attempts, but books like this really help me see the benefit and help motivate me to do better.

“The unvaccinated person is protected by the bodies around her, bodies through which disease is not circulating. But a vaccinated person surrounded by bodies that host disease is left vulnerable to vaccine failure or fading immunity. We are protected not so much by our own skin, but by what is beyond it. The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here. Donations of blood and organs move between us, exiting one body and entering another, and so too with immunity, which is a common trust as much as a private account. Those of us who draw on immunity owe our health to our neighbors.”

This idea of common trust is beautiful.

The absolutely most beautiful account in this book is when Biss describes a friend of hers from Vietnam who fears vaccinations for her own children. Her friend was exposed to agent orange during the Vietnam War (an exposure I also believe killed my mom, a nurse in Vietnam, a little over two years ago), and was suspicious of the “collective trust” and rightly so.

“I could not ask her to risk her children for the benefit of the citizens of the country that had put her in danger. The best I could do, I determine, was hope that my own child’s body might help shield them from disease. If vaccination can be conscripted into acts of war, it can still be instrumental in works of love.”

I love this idea. Biss was fearful as well, but instead of letting fear keep her from participating in the “collective trust”, she offers her own child on the altar of hope for what’s best for us all. If this were the Lincoln-Douglas debates, her courageous surrender of her own son is a two for the win.
...more
5

Sep 29, 2014

I love Eula Biss. Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays is soooo important to me and so stylistically impressive. This is different--one structured narrative rather than an essay collection, but she does trace different topics related to the history of vaccinations and anti-vaccinations.

Ugh she's just so SMART and so good at making connections between things. And I love that she writes openly from her perspective as a new mother, a privileged mother, who can understand the panic that I love Eula Biss. Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays is soooo important to me and so stylistically impressive. This is different--one structured narrative rather than an essay collection, but she does trace different topics related to the history of vaccinations and anti-vaccinations.

Ugh she's just so SMART and so good at making connections between things. And I love that she writes openly from her perspective as a new mother, a privileged mother, who can understand the panic that anti-vaccinators feel while so, so perfectly destroying their arguments on both a medical and ethical level. Just. Great. And she's such an impressive writer. I already said that. I'm just very impressed by her. *_* ...more
5

Jan 31, 2017

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was obsessed with what I consumed. I didn't just give up wine; I gave up chewing gum. I feared that my cups of early pregnancy green tea could cause spinal bifida; I meticulously removed the feta cheese from a dining hall sandwich, knowing that there was virtually no chance that institutional dairy was unpasteurized. In "On Immunity," Eula Biss explores our desire to spare our children the toxicity and mortality that is their lot, and she is unsparing in When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was obsessed with what I consumed. I didn't just give up wine; I gave up chewing gum. I feared that my cups of early pregnancy green tea could cause spinal bifida; I meticulously removed the feta cheese from a dining hall sandwich, knowing that there was virtually no chance that institutional dairy was unpasteurized. In "On Immunity," Eula Biss explores our desire to spare our children the toxicity and mortality that is their lot, and she is unsparing in her assessment of the privilege such anxieties reflect. Though it would be easy to imagine the ideal of immunity as a hermetic space, repelling the onslaught of infection through the shield of the immune system (and Biss discusses our martial metaphors for immunity as well), Biss emphasizes the collective condition of vulnerability and the ideal of herd immunity as a metaphor for the body politic, where the choice to vaccinate supposedly protected privileged children improves the health of everyone. She understands vaccination not as an incursion on our inviolate bodies but rather as a choice to opt in to a social good, to mind the commons for everyone.

Biss's book weaves together feminist, posthuman, and queer theory with personal anecdote and medical research, and she makes her own learning process and maternal anxieties part of the narrative. Her family members play roles in the unfolding philosophical dialogue about vaccination and its implications: her father, a doctor, and her sister, an ethicist. Her syntactical grace and unfailing clarity effortlessly lift the intellectual weight of her explorations; I do not know how she slices through these waters with such momentum given how easily she could be bogged down by her multi-faceted approach (symbolic, epidemiological, and psychological) to the subject.

The one thing that was very demoralizing was reading this book during the dawn of the Trump era. Biss prognosticates about the contemporary anxieties about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy and what it means to be awash in toxicity, and she convincingly links xenophobia and racism to metaphors about bodily invasion and infection (one of my favorite things about the book). She chronicles the debunking of Robert Kennedy Jr.'s unfounded article about immunization and autism. When she was writing this, she must have imagined her inoculation moving forward into a reasonable future, helping people to see not simply the pragmatic benefits of vaccination but also its important to a more capacious view of our physical enmeshment with one another. Unfortunately, it seems we're going in the other direction . ...more
5

Oct 03, 2016

This book was so, so interesting and important. I can't stop thinking about it. I will go so far as to say that everyone should read it. I almost docked a star because the way the endnotes are set up was really annoying, but there's just too much good stuff here not to give it the 5-star deluxe treatment.
1

Sep 22, 2019

No, thank you. I didn't realise that by reading this I would have to engage with someone who is sceptical of vaccinations and chooses to selectively vaccinate their own a child. As someone who works in public health, I can't deal with this kind of nonsense even if it's packaged as a Fitzcarraldo edition.

Vaccinating is not a debate and I don't want science and public health policy explained to me by a lay person who has done a bit of research on the internet. This is not, in any way, like No, thank you. I didn't realise that by reading this I would have to engage with someone who is sceptical of vaccinations and chooses to selectively vaccinate their own a child. As someone who works in public health, I can't deal with this kind of nonsense even if it's packaged as a Fitzcarraldo edition.

Vaccinating is not a debate and I don't want science and public health policy explained to me by a lay person who has done a bit of research on the internet. This is not, in any way, like Sontag's 'Illness as Metaphor' or 'AIDS and its Metaphors'. Rather, it's like hearing your gullible neighbour go on about a topic they don't know very much about.

This was an infuriating read. ...more
3

Aug 03, 2014

I remain immune to the hype.

There's some brilliant writing in here awaintg an editor. Is it a commentary on the current immunity scare? A history of inoculation? A journey into the subtle class boundaries of North America? Who knows. It's all of those things, but in no particular order and with no obvious object. Now, I know that post-modern post-structuralist writing values the amorphous subjective (and perhaps the also the even more elusive intersubjective) but readers still deserve, at the I remain immune to the hype.

There's some brilliant writing in here awaintg an editor. Is it a commentary on the current immunity scare? A history of inoculation? A journey into the subtle class boundaries of North America? Who knows. It's all of those things, but in no particular order and with no obvious object. Now, I know that post-modern post-structuralist writing values the amorphous subjective (and perhaps the also the even more elusive intersubjective) but readers still deserve, at the minimum, some sort of signposting to help us through it.

By the end, which came too slowly, I lost all patience and skimmed. A lesser writer would have merited fewer stars, and it was only Eula Bliss' prose that kept me going.

Also on Twitter and Tumblr. ...more
4

Apr 05, 2015

I read this as part of my Book Riot Read Harder challenge (it fulfills the "a-book-published-by-an-indie-press" requirement). I didn't think I'd like it as much as I did. I'm much more "into" fiction and so I was worried this book was going to be too dry. It wasn't. It was filled with all kinds of stats and facts, of course, but there was also a lot of personal details about the author's life and young son so that made it more readable and identifiable. I'd recommend the book to everyone but I I read this as part of my Book Riot Read Harder challenge (it fulfills the "a-book-published-by-an-indie-press" requirement). I didn't think I'd like it as much as I did. I'm much more "into" fiction and so I was worried this book was going to be too dry. It wasn't. It was filled with all kinds of stats and facts, of course, but there was also a lot of personal details about the author's life and young son so that made it more readable and identifiable. I'd recommend the book to everyone but I think it's especially important for parents of young children to read it. ...more
4

Dec 25, 2014

Belletristic approach to the current vaccine debate. Eula Biss weaves history, philosophy of science, current events, and personal memoir into this excellent piece on the cultural implications of immunology and disease. Susan Sontag, Donna Haraway, and Bram Stoker are consulted along with contemporary scientists and public health advocates. Beautiful writing, indeed. Highly recommended.
2

May 30, 2019

This isn't a science book. It's not a book about healthcare. It's not even a book about vaccination. Instead, On Immunity is a confusing collection of essays with no cohesive theme. Biss cycles between motherhood and literary analysis and never brings it all together.

With the measles outbreak splashed across every newspaper, I picked up a copy of On Immunity, aiming to educate myself on vaccination, and expecting a primer on vaccines and vaccine culture. I was disappointed to discover that this This isn't a science book. It's not a book about healthcare. It's not even a book about vaccination. Instead, On Immunity is a confusing collection of essays with no cohesive theme. Biss cycles between motherhood and literary analysis and never brings it all together.

With the measles outbreak splashed across every newspaper, I picked up a copy of On Immunity, aiming to educate myself on vaccination, and expecting a primer on vaccines and vaccine culture. I was disappointed to discover that this book is an unorganized collection of vague musing about Biss' decision to vaccinate her son, and her obsession with Stoker's Dracula.

I'm not sure what this book is, and I don't think Biss is, either. It's definitely not a comprehensive history of vaccination. I'm not even convinced that Biss is pro-vaccine. She treats the anti-vaccine movement like a valid philosophy, and that's a dangerous approach. The truth is, anti-vaxxers are not parents with valid concerns. They spread misinformation, information known to be false, and their message results in low vaccination rates that put vulnerable members of the population at risk. It's not okay. From all her "research," I expected more from Biss.

And was this a book about vaccination, or a book about Dracula? I'm convinced that Biss had an idea for a thesis about medicine as the modern Dracula, and it never got approved, so she turned it into a book. She practically mentions Dracula on every page. It quickly became annoying, then infuriating. The constant discussion of Dracula wasn't relevant to Biss' larger goal to discuss the sociology of vaccines. Her editor should have taken most of that out.

Parts of this book struck me as insightful, specifically where Biss highlighted the contrast between mothers and doctors, and how the disconnect can impact vaccination rates, which is why I'm giving it two stars instead of one. But I would never recommend this book to anyone. ...more
4

Oct 12, 2019

This was a fairly interesting look into the facts and myths surrounding vaccines. this has been a very hot topic in CA, and I was interested in gaining a better understanding of some of the arguments against. I am pro vaccine, always have been, and always will be. if you are reading this and you are an anti vaxxer, I am not interested in having any sort of debate with you. We will never agree. while I have to admit that I was a little bored on occasion, for the most part I thought the author did This was a fairly interesting look into the facts and myths surrounding vaccines. this has been a very hot topic in CA, and I was interested in gaining a better understanding of some of the arguments against. I am pro vaccine, always have been, and always will be. if you are reading this and you are an anti vaxxer, I am not interested in having any sort of debate with you. We will never agree. while I have to admit that I was a little bored on occasion, for the most part I thought the author did a good job taking a very complicated topic and discussing it a very accessible way. ...more

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