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Rats, Lice and History - Hans Zinsser ***

This classic of popular science has just had a welcome reissue. I say popular science, but Hans Zinsser regularly claims his book is nothing of the sort, as 'we detest and have endeavoured to avoid [popular science]'. (The use of the royal 'we' is another of Zinsser's foibles.) Yet popular science it certainly is - his attempt to avoid the label seems to be because it was somewhat despised as a type of writing by academics in the 1930s when this book was written - and Zinsser wanted to make this more personal than popular science tended to be back then, hence his instance that the book was a 'biography' of the disease typhus.

Such is Zinsser's enthusiasm to underline this more arty, biographical approach, he spends the first couple of chapters not talking about typhus, but rather the range of the arts and sciences, their relationship and the point of biography. If you are interested in these topics (as I am) this is interesting and amusing (in part because of Zinsser's very obvious attempt to demonstrate his own breadth of interest and knowledge), if not what you'd expect in a book like this.

More surprisingly still, perhaps, it's not until chapter 13 that we really meet the disease typhus. Along the way, Zinsser teases us with little details, but then puts off the main topic as he dives into, for example, the natural history of the two main vectors of typhus, rats and lice. Finally, though, we do get a grounding in the nature of this unpleasant killer - as far as was possible, considering that a virus like typhus was too small to be seen under the microscopes of the day.

How you find this book will depend to an extent how you cope with Zinsser's whimsical and eccentric approach. I found the first 12 chapters more interesting than those on the disease itself (partly because of an aversion to things medical), but there's no doubt that his writing can still be amusing and interesting. You wouldn't read it as you might a modern equivalent to get the latest science - but you will certainly find out a lot about typhus and the conditions (including the wars and living conditions) that made it possible for it to exist and thrive in human hosts.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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