Book Review: On Immunity by Eula Biss

If you saw my post recommending the book The Man Who Touched His Own Heart and the Sawbones podcast last month, you know I am have a weakness for medical history. On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss scratched that itch — and how. But this timely book is more than a history of vaccines. It’s an exploration of the metaphors we use to discuss disease and inoculation, the fear felt by mothers who are trying to do their best to keep their children safe, and what immunity means to us on both a personal and a societal level.

I have been hearing wonderful things about this book since it was pitched at last year’s BEA Buzz Panel, and I am kicking myself for waiting this long to read it. Biss’ writing is gorgeous; it’s thoughtful and elegant, and I appreciated the way she carefully avoided alienating her readers. Vaccines have been a hot topic in the media lately, with some rather bad behavior from both anti-vaxxers and those who argue for the importance of inoculating all children who can be vaccinated. Biss writes from the perspective of a mother who recently had to make decisions about vaccinating her own child, and who belongs to a group of mothers who are obsessive in their research about which medical practices will or will not be harmful to their own children. Although On Immunity corrects common myths about the danger of vaccines and ultimately argues for their importance to society, Biss empathizes with those who make the decision not to vaccinate based on fear.

 “Those who went on to use Wakefield’s inconclusive work to support the notion that vaccines cause autism are not guilty of ignorance or science denial so much as they are guilty of using weak science as it has always been used — to lend false credibility to an idea that we want to believe for other reasons.”

On Immunity is a fascinating look at the history of inoculation, how our culture views immunity, why harmful myths are so difficult to dispel, how heard immunity works, and where the responsibility for this immunity lies. It is rich with metaphors, as Biss draws on Bram Stroker’s Dracula, the Occupy movement, and our tradition of using war-related language to discuss disease and immune response. I believe this is an important read for anyone who is interested in the ongoing debate about vaccinations; it’s deeply thought-provoking and beautiful to read, and I think readers on either side of the argument will come away with new perspectives, greater empathy, and reassurance in the face of a frightening world.

“Immunity is a public space. And it can be occupied by those who choose not to carry immunity. For some of the mothers I know, a refusal to vaccinate falls under a broader resistance to capitalism. But refusing immunity as a form of civil disobedience bears an unsettling resemblance to the very structure the Occupy movement seeks to disrupt — a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.”



13 thoughts on “Book Review: On Immunity by Eula Biss

  1. Great review, Leah. And, that last quote is very effective. It’s nice to hear that is beautifully written, rather then factual and preachy – this can be such a sensitive topic.

  2. I read this book but never got around to writing a review and agree with your post 100%! That last quote was also one that brought it home for me and the term “herd immunity” made me sit up. Not only did I choose to immunize my kids to protect them but also to protect those around us who can’t for personal and health reasons. The greater good. 🙂

    • Yeah, immunizations for the greater good! This book actually made me resolve to start getting the flu vaccine every year… I’ve never gotten one because I’ve never had the flu, but if I can help keep other people healthy, why not?

  3. I’ve wanted to read this book since I saw it on River City Reading! I’m glad that it came through for you. I also have to say, you come up with some of the best ways to describe your reactions – that this book “scratched that itch” left me understanding exactly how you reacted to this book. I’m looking forward to reading it…eventually.

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