Scary Read: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

RabidA tip o’ the hat to my friend Kate, who pointed me to a podcast about the most fascinating story in this already-fascinating book a couple months ago.

Rabid, by veterinarian Monica Murphy and her husband, Wired editor Bill Wasik, examines rabies from a cultural standpoint — but you probably got that much from the title. I went in with the my knowledge of rabies confined to that one episode of The Office, something about twenty shots in your stomach, and a settled dislike for raccoons.

Now on the other side, I’ve got a better handle on the whole subject. The rabies vaccine is only four shots in one’s arm, for one thing. And rabies is the most deadly virus identified, with 100% human mortality (as far as we know) if the disease goes untreated. And 55,000 people die from rabies every year. I guess it’s only a joke if you live in Scranton.

The best chapters in Rabid deal with Pasteur, who invented the rabies vaccine, and with human survivors of rabies, Jeanna Giese in particular (whose case is the subject of that podcast), and how an island community like Bali deals with a sudden outbreak of the disease.

Less mesmerizing are the book’s forays into literary subjects the authors associate with rabies (the bit about the Iliad is particularly unfortunate); the authors are much better equipped to deal with the scientific and veterinary aspects of the disease’s history. Based on the last three chapters alone, Rabid is worth a look. And you’ll definitely look twice the next time you see a raccoon. Or a skunk. Or a stray dog.