TN Read-Along #14: The Great Influenza Discussion Thread
Institutions are a strange mix of the mass and the individual. They abstract. They behave according to a set of rules that substitute both for individual judgments and for the emotional responses that occur whenever individuals interact. The act of creating an institution dehumanizes it, creates an arbitrary barrier between individuals. (299)
I haven't quite finished the book, and the passage above is one reason why I might choose not to continue. The deeper the reader gets into The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, the harder author John M. Barry tries with the literary devices, and the more he strains to ensure that it's his prose that's epic, not just the subject. The repetition of "there was no time" on pp. 317-8 (and "this was still influenza, only influenza" prior to that) that aims to create an incantation of sorts, but merely slows down the narrative; the quotations that seem shoehorned in to little purpose (Eliot, p. 303); the goosing of facts with italics or "poetical" descriptors…these devices, unnecessary to hold the interest, begin to wear actively after a hundred or so pages, through which we have already sat patiently, waiting for the biographies of every scientist involved to be brought to bear. I appreciate the laying of that groundwork, in theory, but in practice, once people start dropping dead, you need to find the point and get to it with a quickness. A large part of what still fascinates us about the flu epidemic is the rapidity of its spread and destruction; the narrative should reflect that rapidity as best it can.
Alas, mixed in with compelling details like the parents begging local officials to put their son's body in a bulk-size macaroni box, and tantalizing mentions of the federal government's utter failure to respond (this area of investigation may come together later in the book; so far, it's organized in a front-loaded fashion that doesn't suit its place in the story), there's p. 219's episode of Someone's Been Reading Too Much Whitman.
Many of the dead were more boys than men, eighteen years old, nineteen years old, twenty years old, twenty-one years old, boys filled with their lithe youth and sly smiles.
…Um, what? Look, maybe Barry is an accomplished poet elsewhere in his writing life, but regardless, it's not what we picked up this book for. "Many of the dead were more boys than men, just 18 or 19 years old." Done. Next graf.
With all of that said, three things, the first being that once I noticed the purpling of the prose, I couldn't stop noticing it, but it may not bother other people, and if you haven't started the book yet, I don't think you should let my nitpickery stop you, because (second thing) in spite of the overwriting, it's exhaustively researched, and a fascinating story regardless of how it's told. And third, I am sympathetic to the tendency to overshare information in which one has immersed oneself; a number of friends have asked how my day is going, and found themselves ankles-deep in a torrent of non-essential historical arcana about Pomeranians. Barry's editor could perhaps have gripped the reins a bit tighter, but s/he may not have wanted to get in the way of details like, for example, how the flu epidemic was leveraged into anti-German sentiment.
Did anyone else find certain locutions bothersome, or did you not even notice them? What did you think of the structure of the book — did it take too long to get to the main portion of the epidemic, or were you fine with the pacing? Discuss.
Tags: books John M. Barry simmer down freshman The TN Read-Along Walt Whitman