I took a break this weekend from reading Eula Biss‘s On Immunity to go hear Biss speak as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Biss’s book is a study of both the history of and current wild confusion around vaccination through various different kinds of bodies. To wit, in the words of Katie Watson, her interviewer, “the human body, the body politic, and the popular body of information” — the latter of which is imperiled of late by, in a lovely parallelism, the viral spread of (mis)information about vaccination on the internet.
The book covers a lot of ground, touching on theories of contagion, myths of immortality, plagues, chicken pox parties, citizenship and the moral responsibility of ordering collective good above that of the individual, and vampires. Many vampires. (The Rumpus has a review slated for sometime in the near future.) But, inspired by the birth of her son and her own attempt to understand whether or not to vaccinate him (she did), On Immunity is more than anything else a meditation on the vulnerability of motherhood — and in that it shares a common attribute with Megan Stielstra’s Channel B (the piece originally published here at the Rumpus that reappears in Best American Essays 2013). Both book and essay share a tender openness about mothering, in all its anxiety and confusion, that I found moving. I’m not a parent, and I soak up writing on the subject that makes the effort to speak to all readers: parents, hopeful parents, the parenting-curious, and the agnostics. Both Stielstra (who was also in the audience) and Biss are generous that way.
Biss is also one of those writers who seems to have sprung fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s skull, into my critical consciousness, leaving me so startled by her talent that I wondered what rock I’d been hiding under while her career took off. Reading essayists like Biss and Leslie Jamison, who Athena’d into my library last winter, has been invigorating and joyful, reopening my sometimes tired eyes to the exciting potential of the essay form. If you’re in Chicago, Jamison speaks this afternoon at 4:30 pm at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center, 915 E. 60th St., also as part of the Humanities Festival. Tickets are $12; I’ll be there.