Recommendation: A little aimless and far too long, Rabid is another non-fiction book that would be better served as a longform article or short series of essays. The topic is interesting and there are segments worthy of reading, but there is not enough here to sustain a complete book.
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I’m sure there are better things to read during a cross-country road trip than a frightening history of one of the world’s most disturbing viruses. But I couldn’t think of any while I was driving across the Pacific Northwest, so I popped in the Rabid audio book and set to listening. As you would likely assume from the title, Rabid is a book detailing the history of rabies, one of the world’s most frightening viruses. It provides not only a technical insight into the virus—how it works, how it’s transferred, and how we succumb to it—but also investigates the cultural significance of the disease and tries to understand why rabies, in particular, is such a frightening prospect.
So my main gripe with Rabid is that it is just longer than it should be (like many non-fiction books). Publishers like to push books to be between 250 and 350 pages (I’ve mentioned this a few times, but seriously, check it out, you’ll be surprised how many books fall in this range) to make customers feel that the book is worth the expense, but isn’t long enough that it feels burdensome. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this task—line spacing, filling out the margins, where to start each chapter—but the easiest solution is often to let extraneous information stay when it should be cut. Authors are going to write. It’s what they do. But editors are supposed to tell these authors when enough is enough, and that doesn’t happen as much as it should. The history of rabies is actually quite interesting and those sections that paid attention to it held my attention quite well, but the book veers off far too much.
Right in the middle there is an entire chapter devoted to the history of werewolves and vampires under the guise of understanding the fear humans attach to bites…but it never quite connects and is largely wasted space. As far as literary criticism goes, the authors do make some interesting points, but that doesn’t change the fact that a book that is meant to be about rabies somehow devolves into literary criticism of the last werewolf novel. Things just got really off track and someone should have been around to tighten the screws on this ride.
What the authors do quite well is develop an understanding of rabies. Though the idea of catching rabies is still a frightening prospect, it isn’t a very realistic one in most first-world countries. As this book describes in detail, Louis Pasteur discovered the vaccine for rabies quite a long time ago, so I’m now more likely to worry about catching some rare form of cancer than losing my mind to rabies. But Wasik and Murphy do a great job of bringing the horrors of rabies back to life. Vivid descriptions put you right in the action and it’s a short step for your mind to imagine what it would be like to have rabies yourself, or to watch it slowly consume your loved ones. Not a pleasant prospect.
The book also provides some new information that you might not have been aware of. For example, I hadn’t heard much (or anything) about the outbreak of rabies in Bali just a few short years ago. I also didn’t know that a symptom of rabies is hydrophobia (fear of water), which just makes the virus that much more terrifying. You need water to live and any disease that can sink its claws deep enough into your psyche to make you fear something you need to survive…well that is a disease worthy of its own book. It’d be far better if this book were able to cut out the excessive information, but if you love infectious diseases (which would be a weird thing to love but, hey, to each his/her own) then you’ll probably enjoy the good segments enough to ignore the bad.