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What’s a Pandemic? And What’s With James Ellroy?

Category: Art & Culture,Books

To the Editor:

Carl Zimmer’s review of my book “The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris” (June 9) reminded me of an observation by the American virologist Ed Kilbourne that defining a pandemic is a little bit like defining pornography: “We all ‘know it when we see it,’ but the boundaries are a little blurred.”

Zimmer doesn’t think the 1930 parrot fever outbreak deserves to be classified as a pandemic since it sparked just 33 deaths in the United States “and comparably low numbers in Europe.” But the World Health Organization defines a pandemic simply as “the worldwide spread of a new disease,” and although it is true that pandemics may also be associated with large numbers of deaths, severity has never been a necessary condition.

Moreover, while it’s true that the 14th-century Black Death wiped out approximately a third of the world’s population, the term “pandemic” was hardly used before the late 19th century, when the worldwide spread of bubonic plague, spurred by faster shipping and rail connections, underlined the way in which the world was becoming a single epidemiological unit. However, it was only following the outbreaks of pandemic influenza in 1890 and 1918 that the term entered the medical and popular lexicon and that — crucially — it began to be applied retrospectively to earlier historical outbreaks.

More significantly, these were the first pandemics to coincide with the germ theory of disease. Yet rather than foster, as Zimmer writes, “a sense of mastery over the microbial world,” the 1918-19 “Spanish flu” pandemic underlined the limits of modern bacteriological knowledge and the dangers of scientific hubris.

Far from “overlooking” measures that might curtail future pandemics, it is precisely because of my concern that the example of 1918 is distorting present-day planning, and my concern that we may be in danger of forgetting its lessons, that I was moved to survey the last century of epidemics and pandemics. This may occasionally make for “gloomy” reading, but even I couldn’t have envisaged that in 2019 we would be witnessing worldwide outbreaks of measles and a growing Ebola epidemic in Africa caused in large part by the rejection of vaccines, a proven medical technology for preventing pandemics.


To the Editor:

In her review of Rachel Louise Snyder’s “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us” (June 9), Alisa Roth writes that “for most of our history, domestic violence has been considered a private matter. The first law to protect victims of domestic abuse passed Congress only in 1984.”

Over 30 years ago, the historian Elizabeth Pleck uncovered much earlier efforts to curb domestic violence in this country, which she documented in her pioneering book “Domestic Tyranny: The Making of American Social Policy Against Family Violence From Colonial Times to the Present,” published in 1987. Pleck wrote that “from 1640 to 1680, the Puritans of colonial Massachusetts enacted the first laws anywhere in the world against wife beating and ‘unnatural severity’ to children,” noting that the Puritans “developed the concept of family violence as a public concern” and passed laws designed to punish transgressors.

Pleck’s volume provides important historical scaffolding for our consideration of little-known instances of public and private efforts to eliminate and/or mitigate the effects of domestic violence.


To the Editor:

Sam Dolnick concludes his review of Josh Levin’s “The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth” (June 9) by saying that Linda Taylor, the original “welfare queen,” belongs in the “pantheon of American grifters” like P. T. Barnum and others, “characters who captivate us with promises that we will learn something about ourselves, if only we could catch them.” This is a thought that half the country and rational folks around the world are hoping the House of Representatives will soon effect.


To the Editor:

I figured we were in trouble when you asked James Ellroy in By the Book (June 9) to suggest books about Los Angeles and he recommended his own. Things only got worse when he mentioned that the primary feature of decoration in his “pad” is framed dust jackets of his own books. But when he said he doesn’t like Cormac McCarthy because he doesn’t employ quotation marks and mentions that William Faulkner is “another cat I can’t dig,” I decided that Ellroy himself was such a cat for me.


To the Editor:

I always enjoy the By the Book section. It’s the first thing I turn to. But today … James Ellroy. Geez, what a grouch! And what’s he got against cats anyway?


To the Editor:

James Ellroy’s trashing of Cormac McCarthy comes off sounding like Barbara Cartland dissing Emily Brontë. Seriously, Mr. Ellroy?


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