Morbid Microhistories

By Jane Hanna

Death! Disaster! Destruction! Disease! These titles offer a focused look at some slightly darker subject matter. Not for the faint of heart—or stomach.

  • The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons : The History of the Human Brain as revealed by true stories of trauma, madness, and Recovery

    2014 by Sam Kean

    You know that scene in Evil Dead 2 when Ash's hand starts acting on its own? Turns out that a particular kind of brain trauma might actually cause one of your hands to behave like it's possessed! (Oh my god, who typed that?!!) Sam Kean's conversational account of some of the key patients whose misfortune and madness led physicians to map the brain made my head spin, so to speak. But I now feel qualified to diagnose Hodor from Game of Thrones as having Broca's aphasia.

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  • Rabid : A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

    2012 by Bill Wasik

    Do the movie monsters we've come to love and fear--vampires, werewolves, and zombies--all share a common viral cause? But there's a decent case to be made that at least some of those mythical baddies were originally invented to explain the horrors of one of the most insidious diseases in history. Actually "history" is a problematic word here because one of the key takeaways from this book is that rabies is just as present, terrifying and deadly as ever if you live outside the U.S. After reading, you'll start checking yourself for bat bites every morning!

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  • Kingdom Under Glass : A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

    2010 by Jay Kirk

    If you've stared into the glass eyeballs of a taxidermied animal and felt an eerie tingle in your spine, you have Carl Akeley to thank! He revolutionized the field, giving preserved specimens an unprecedented realism. He was also friends with Teddy Roosevelt, and once killed a leopard with his bare hands. (His first wife Delia "Mickey" was no slouch either--wait until you meet her monkey!). Kirk's well-researched book chronicles a turn of the century revolution in conservation science and environmentalism, preservation through destruction.

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  • Stiff : The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

    2003 by Mary Roach

    Here's an irreverent yet respectful overview of corpses as commodities. While many of us might prefer that the departed stay out of sight and out of mind, the truth is that bodies have a lot to offer as research and test subjects. It also investigates burial practices--past, present, and future--and the ways that cultural and religious practices interact with the pragmatic realities of storage and disposal. It's hard enough for me to stay on top of hauling out my recycling. Imagine having to be responsible for respectfully rubbishing remains!

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  • The Ghost Map : The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

    2006 by Steven Johnson

    This book combines my fascination with Victorian London and my interest in epidemic diseases. Those are normal pastimes, right? In The Ghost Map, protagonist John Snow carries out a heroic quest to defend The Wall--erm, no that's a different guy. This John Snow was a real-life physician who endeavored to explain and contain a devastating cholera outbreak. It's a taught, interdisciplinary thriller about a profoundly icky subject matter.

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  • The Johnstown Flood,

    1968 by David G McCullough

    McCullough is known for his exhaustive presidential biographies that take a full four-year term to read. So this book is refreshing in its brevity. But that's the only uplifting thing about this tragic tale of a completely preventable disaster that claimed 2000 lives and washed an entire Pennsylvania town off the map. It's an all-too-familiar story of corporate hubris and villainous tycoons who destroy the environment and disregard the pleas of the scientific community for their own profit and pleasure. The victims? Working class families. Let's hope history isn't repeating itself today!

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  • The World Without Us

    2007 by Alan Weisman

    If you're reading this list then there's a good chance that you're a fan of horror movies--particularly of the zombie apocalypse and/or post-nuclear dystopian varieties. Me too! Thanks to this book, I now sound like the smartest survivalist in the room when my nerd friends debate what the world will look like after the plague/bomb devastates the population. I'll tell you the worst part first: your dog won't make it without you. But aside from the demise of our domestic friends, Nature has a remarkable pluck that will have you cheering her on as she reclaims our ruined cities.

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