This isn’t the first time I’ve written a book review without finishing the book — but the last time was in the early 1980s when I read the first and then last chapters of Jane Eyre for English class. Plus one chapter in the middle I’d been assigned.
The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the most Devastating Plague of All Time is *exactly* the sort of book that should have been up my alley. It promises to be a look at the time when “…an old world ended and a new world was born.” (from the back cover). Instead, it was a snooze-fest that appears to deeply cover its subject while never really saying anything about humanity in general nor the humanity of those who chronicled or survived the Great Mortality. The opening chapters discuss the probable vectors for pneumonic plague infection (and I was amused to learn via news release today that “gerbils” and not rats are now the greatest candidates when this book cites tarabagans, a type of Russian marmot, as the most likely vector).
Chapters one through three are an interesting read about: what (the three types of plague); when and where (humanity at the dawn of the Great Mortality); and why (reasons the population may have been particularly vulnerable during the 14th century). Chapters four through seven (seven is where I gave up) wandered increasingly from the subject of plague to the subject of individual cities. And while there was definitely the possibility for an interesting look at how each individual location and country dealt with the (likely pneumonic) plague, the book does not live up to its “intimate” potential. What resources are used are exclusively from male and rather upper class citizens, the author throws shade left and right regarding the cities’ self-reported death counts, and overall seems more interested in detailing the “scandal” of Joanna, Queen of Naples and Sicily and Petrarch’s thoughts on the behavior of Clement than he is the human experience of the plague that is ostensibly the focus of his book.
Generally speaking, I don’t give up on a book. Even if it takes me six months or more to read it. Or I hate every word. But life is short, and while there are interesting nuggets throughout The Great Mortality, I can’t help but feel this was and should have remained a much more slender tome than the one I just couldn’t finish. I really wish I could have recommended this book, but despite the promise of the subject and the back-cover blurb, I’m left feeling let down and disappointed.
But not, thankfully, plagued by anything.