This isn’t a science book. It’s not a book about healthcare. It’s not even a book about vaccination. Instead, On Immunity is a confusing collection of essays with no cohesive theme. Biss cycles between motherhood and literary analysis and never brings it all together.
Upon becoming a new mother, Eula Biss addresses a chronic condition of fear–fear of the government, the medical establishment, and what is in your child’s air, food, mattress, medicine, and vaccines. She finds that you cannot immunize your child, or yourself, from the world.
In this bold, fascinating book, Biss investigates the metaphors and myths surrounding our conception of immunity and its implications for the individual and the social body. As she hears more and more fears about vaccines, Biss researches what they mean for her own child, her immediate community, America, and the world, both historically and in the present moment. She extends a conversation with other mothers to meditations on Voltaire’s Candide, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors, and beyond.
With the measles outbreak splashed across every newspaper, I picked up a copy of On Immunity, aiming to educate myself on vaccination, and expecting a primer on vaccines and vaccine culture. I was disappointed to discover that this book is an unorganized collection of vague musing about Biss’ decision to vaccinate her son, and her obsession with Stoker’s Dracula.
I’m not sure what this book is, and I don’t think Biss is, either. It’s definitely not a comprehensive history of vaccination. I’m not even convinced that Biss is pro-vaccine. She treats the anti-vaccine movement like a valid philosophy, and that’s a dangerous approach. The truth is, anti-vaxxers are not parents with valid concerns. They spread misinformation, information known to be false, and their message results in low vaccination rates that put vulnerable members of the population at risk. It’s not okay. From all her “research,” I expected more from Biss.
And was this a book about vaccination, or a book about Dracula? I’m convinced that Biss had an idea for a thesis about medicine as the modern Dracula, and it never got approved, so she turned it into a book. She practically mentions Dracula on every page. It quickly became annoying, then infuriating. The constant discussion of the book wasn’t relevant to Biss’ larger goal to discuss the sociology of vaccines. Her editor should have taken most of that out.
Parts of this book struck me as insightful, specifically where Biss highlighted the contrast between mothers and doctors, and how the disconnect can impact vaccination rates, which is why I’m giving it two stars instead of one. I would never recommend this book to anyone.