Barry's "The Great Influenza" is the story of the influenza pandemic of 1918, the worst pandemic in history. With upper estimates of the global death toll topping an astonishing 100 million people, the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 made the Black Death of the Middle Ages, for example, look like a family outbreak of a cold that was difficult to shake over the weekend. The Spanish Flu killed more people than died in World War I and more than the tens of millions who have died, to date, in the AIDS pandemic. While his focus was primarily on the USA, Barry tries to tell us about the general context of history in 1918 and the specific state of medicine of the day, the madly rushed epidemiological research that took place as a result of the illness, the successes and failures of the efforts that were taken to stem the inexorable progress of the virus as it marched around the world claiming its victims and the heroism of the front line medical staff that attempted to deal with the immediacy of the dying and the dead that filled the halls of the hospitals and overflowed into the streets.
Interesting? Unquestionably. Frightening? You bet ... and down to your very toes. "The Great Influenza" tells us in all too graphic terms about the extent to which we are currently susceptible to a repeated global pandemic as a result of some new deadly strain of a mutated virus. But was it compelling page turning reading or great writing? I'm afraid not. Writing great history is a very special skill that requires an author to turn dates, facts and events into something that reads like a suspense novel. Pierre Berton can do it. Simon Winchester can do it. Ken McGoogan can do it. For my money, the list of authors that can achieve this feat is really quite short and, sadly, John Barry didn't make the cut. Barry's research was clearly extensive and his tale of the events were exhaustive but it was also, frankly, quite exhausting.
Highly recommended for the information value of its content but it was neither fun nor easy to read.
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