I finally finished this one. The delay was a combination of being on holiday, and needing to put some space between my experience of this book and the experience of others, as I was starting to feel like I was losing my objectivity regarding my feelings about this book.
So, my feelings: Get Well Soon was poorly sub-titled and marketed. As a popular science book, or a popular history-about-science book, it fails. As an introductory anthropological and cultural survey of how society has historically reacted to epidemics and pandemics, I think its excellent.
Furthermore, while I like her writing style a lot, it is polarising. Jennifer Wright is a 30-something author whose voice is informal, irreverent and snarky. She writes the way friends - good friends - talk when they don't have to behave themselves. She uses this no-nonsense voice to sometimes share her thoughts about topics that are themselves, polarising.
So this is a book that isn't going to appeal to everyone. It particularly isn't going to appeal - at all - to anyone looking for a more sober, scientifically-focused exploration of the topic. After reading the whole thing, I'm pretty sure it was never meant to, at least, not from the author's perspective.
"If you take nothing else away from this book, I hope it's that sick people are not villains."
This is a recurring theme from start to finish. Wright's objective seems to be to focus a spotlight on humanity's reaction to mass illness throughout history, whether good or bad. Her hope in doing so is that perhaps those who read this book will learn from history rather than doom themselves to repeat it. She does this is the frankest, bluntest possible way, with a lot of snarky humor.
In this objective, I believe she succeeds. I think those of us who could be labeled as 'prolific readers' or those who voraciously devour their favorite subjects, might lose perspective on how well-informed, or not, most people today are. Society today is at least as divided as it's been at almost any other time in history, and a good deal of opinion is shaped via the internet, a source we all know can be about as accurate as a round of the telephone game.
In this context, I think the book is fantastic. Jennifer Wright seems to be a popular author of columns in various newspapers and magazines; if even a handful of her fans from Harper's Bazaar, et al, read this book simply because she wrote it, and they come away having learned something they didn't know before they started, or thinking harder about their responsibility in society, then Wright will have succeeded where others have failed. (And yes, I'm generally pessimistic about the world I live in - my country is being run by an orange lunatic; I think I'm entitled to a bit of pessimism.)
I'm not one of her magazine/newspaper fans. In fact it wasn't until after I'd started this that I realised I'd ever read anything by her before. I'm also quantitatively better read, if not qualitatively (some would argue), and I can say that not only did I enjoy this book a great deal, but I learned more than I expected to. For example, I had no idea that the Spanish Flu wasn't actually Spanish, but probably American, and I had no idea that it killed so many Americans. Granted, most of my knowledge of the Spanish Flu comes from British fiction, but it's a testament to the horrifying effectiveness of government censorship during WWI that you still don't read about it in American fiction, and this is a disease that killed in one month more Americans than the US Civil War. I'd also never heard of Encephalitis Lethargica, and sort of wish I never had. Even on the diseases I knew more about, Wright managed to impart something new for me, and in at least 2 chapters, left me misty eyed over the power people have when they choose to be selfless.
As a popular science book meant to tackle a complicated topic in a palatable way, this book is a fail; there's not nearly enough scientific discussion or data here to qualify this as such a book. But as a popular, cultural overview of the way societies throughout history have succeeded or failed to handle epidemics when they happened and the importance of rational, humane leaders and populace in times of crises, I think Wright succeeds very well.
The tragedy of this book is that it's marketed to the very people who are bound to be disappointed by it and likely don't need its message, and the people who might gain the most from it are likely to pass it by because they think it'll be too boring and dry.
I read this for The Flat Book Society's September read, but it also qualifies for the Doomsday square in Halloween Bingo.