Like so many other people, once the events of March 2020 happened I decided I had to read this book. Somehow, it took me three and a half years to get there.
Despite now being over 10 years old, this book still feels incredibly relevant and an essential read. Sure, some things have changed but so much of what Quammen covers in this is knowledge we all should know. And the predictions he makes are non-specific enough to have basically come true.
For me there are a number of value parts to the book. The section on SARS feels incredibly prophetic. As someone who dismissed SARS as a crazy overreaction – like so many of us – I really feel like I needed to read this in 2012…or at least read it before 2020. The section on the origins of HIV is probably the best part of the book for me, and it’s complicated enough that he seems to have gone off and written an entire book about it. I had no idea about this – I was only familiar with “Patient Zero” – and Quammen does both an excellent job of explaining what likely happened and turning it into a bit of a thriller. Even the part where he uses literary license to imagine its initial origins feels appropriate. (It’s the kind of thing that I normally really don’t like, especially in films.) Even the brief section on the flu feels valuable. Honestly, I learned something in every section and was captivated throughout.
I understand that so many of us learned something about a lot of this stuff between the beginning of the pandemic and now but I don’t think that invalidates this book. Quammen is an excellent writer and his survey of zoonosis is about as well-written and valuable as I can imagine such a survey, especially one written nearly a decade before the pandemic.
I don’t really have any criticisms. (Okay, he can be a little too cute with his language, occasionally.) This is a great book. It was timely when it came out and it’s still timely. I wish I had read it earlier.