Washington Post rave for A Planet of Viruses

Here’s a gratifying review of A Planet of Viruses, just out in the Washington Post:

In A Planet of Viruses (Univ. of Chicago, $20), science writer Carl Zimmer accomplishes in a mere 100 pages what other authors struggle to do in 500: He reshapes our understanding of the hidden realities at the core of everyday existence. The question “Who am I?” is as old as Moses, but Zimmer suggests that on a fundamental DNA level, each of us is actually more virus than “I.” He digs into the head-spinning adaptability and variety of viruses, while revealing lots of interesting information, such as the potential healing power of bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria). That last topic is particularly newsworthy as we stride into an era when the over-use of antibiotics may have helped bacteria develop increasingly tough skins and bad attitudes. “It’s clear now,” Zimmer writes, “that phage therapy can treat a wide range of infections. . . . Scientists at the Eliava Institute [in the country of Georgia] have developed a dressing for wounds that is impregnated with half a dozen different phages, capable of killing the six most common kinds of bacteria that infect skin wounds.” Whether he’s exploring how viruses come to America or picking apart the surprisingly complicated common cold, Zimmer’s train of thought is concise and illuminating.

I particularly appreciate the fact that the reviewer sees its brevity as a strength, not a weakness. Books shouldn’t be 500 pages simply to be 500 pages. I like to follow the example of virus genomes. Here’s a flu virus genome, which you can print on a single page. It may not have the bloated grandeur of the human genome, but it definitely gets the job done.

[Update: Commenters have pointed out that the link I provided goes to the sequence of just one of eight segments in the flu genome. Fair enough. Rather than waste time cutting and pasting them altogether, I found this page with the genome of human papillomavirus (the cause of cervical cancer and reckless ignorance among certain politicians). In 10-point type, I fit its genome on two pages. That’s more than one page, yes, but I think my point still stands: brevity can be a strength, not a weakness.]

8 thoughts on “Washington Post rave for A Planet of Viruses

  1. Veddy nice. And I too like it that the reviewer liked the brevity. It’ll be interesting to see if these small (size) successes in print books, along with pressure on mid/short lengths from ebooks, lead to more short print books as well.

    I didn’t know about those bandages. Slick.

    David

  2. I looked and looked in my copy of “Planet of Viruses” and could not find the one featured in the recent movie, “Contagion.” I assume this is an oversight that will be corrected in future editions.

    I’m kidding; I know it was a made-up virus in the movie. I wonder, though, if the fairly solid science in the film will boost interest in viruses in general? One can hope so.

  3. What you’ve linked to there is _not_ actually the complete viral genome, because the influenza A genome comprises multiple pieces of RNA (8 in all, I believe). You’re just looking at one segment. If you add in the other segments, you’ll find you probably have more than you can print on one page (depending on what font size you use). See, for ex:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/nuccore/CY039915.1
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/nuccore/CY039914.1

    etc.

  4. I haven’t gotten to this one yet, but one of the complaints I keep reading about is how short it is. I really don’t understand that. I’d rather read a short book than a padded one.

  5. I’d rather read a short book than a padded one too, but I’d much rather read a longer book that isn’t padded and covers the topic in more depth instead of just tantalizing. It is like being given a tortilla chip when you’re looking for a meal. But that’s just me….I read university textbooks and even solve the end of chapter problems…and I recognize that most people don’t want to do that so there’s a market for short books.

    O/T, but if you do like reading textbooks and if you know a professor or two at a local university, ask for their old textbooks. Many profs get free textbooks from publishers hoping to persuade the prof to use their book in classes. The profs then usually give me the previous edition of a textbook which sometimes is only a year old (esp. in genetics, molecular and cell biology).

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