What, you don’t want to read nearly 200 pages about vaccination? The subject might sound dry to anyone who hasn’t been fiercely debating it in her mommy group. But consider this: Eula Biss’ fascinating pro-immunization book features a chapter on vampires. Although the National Book Critics Circle Award winner grounds her argument in rigorous medical, historical, and personal research — she became a mother herself just as swine-flu hysteria was sweeping the country — it’s the creative thinking that makes On Immunity so compelling. Biss can turn practically anything into a metaphor for immunity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Occupy Wall Street movement, immigration policy, Greek mythology. And her theories about why anti-vaccine crusaders remain more afraid of inoculation than of disease itself are just as surprising as they are convincing.
Here’s the biggest twist: On Immunity is not actually about vaccination. Sure, Biss ably traces the history of vaccines back to the 18th century, when doctors were injecting cow pus into humans, and she thoughtfully analyzes how class, gender, race, and nationality have played a role in shaping opinions on the matter since then. She also lays waste to common fears about vaccines, like the idea that they cause autism or can give a child mercury poisoning. (Apparently, a child will get more mercury exposure from her environment than from a shot, and breast milk isn’t any less tainted. ”Laboratory analysis of breast milk has detected paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, flame retardants, pesticides, and rocket fuel,” Biss reveals.) But this is a deeply philosophical book, one that’s less concerned with pure science than with the elemental fear that we can never protect our children from the world. In fact, Biss believes, no one can ever truly be inoculated from other people — nor should anyone be. By exploring the anxieties about what’s lurking inside our flu shots, the air, and ourselves, she drives home the message that we are all responsible for one another. On Immunity will make you consider that idea on a fairly profound level. So now do you want to read a book about vaccination? Well, if anyone can convince you that it’s your moral obligation to do so, it’s Biss. A