On Immunity by Eula Biss

On Immunity by Eula BissOn Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss
Published by Graywolf Press on September 30, 2014
Pages: 205
Source: A fellow book blogger sent me this book!
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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.
On Immunity is a moving account of how we are all interconnected-our bodies and our fates.

Essayist Eula Biss argues for vaccination in her brief but thoughtful book On Immunity. Vaccination is a fiery hot topic of debate, but Biss manages to keep a fair, neutral tone throughout. Her writing style is incredibly engaging and stylistically beautiful. I enjoyed reading this just as much as I enjoy reading Mary Roach!

A massive “big picture” is apparent at every point in the book. Biss tackles the vaccination debate as it applies to history, socio-economic differences, attitudes, misunderstandings (direct vs indirect causation), conspiracy theories in the States and abroad, science, logic, maternal fears, international politics and, appallingly, even warfare. Somehow, everything that comes into play on the topic of immunity is ever-present in the reader’s mind, yet the narrative remains straightforward and clear.

“Wealthier countries have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford.”

I hadn’t thought about how tricky it is for health organizations to convince the public to trust immunizations. They have to word everything just right in order to preserve confidence in vaccines from people who have the luxury of choosing not to vaccinate, because this choice affects those who don’t have that luxury, especially in other parts of the world.

Biss makes an affecting case for vaccination as a moral choice, portraying how we are all connected, all over the world; how what we do and what we don’t do impacts others. She also speaks of the illusion of independence when it comes to our bodies: Like it or not, our health depends on the choices of others. We are both independent and dependent.

Interwoven throughout the narrative is a fascinating literary thread about…vampires! Biss shows how we have learned a lot about society’s changing values and fears, especially when it comes to medicine, by the way vampires are portrayed in their literature and media in different time periods. I really enjoyed this reflection on how fiction relates to reality.


  • I wasn’t really interested in an entire book on vaccination, but the way you describe how she handles it sounds really interesting! Especially how our choices affect the rest of the world.

  • I loved how Biss was able to make a strong argument in favor of vaccination while retaining empathy for the fears of those who choose not to vaccinate. I’m glad you enjoyed it, too!

  • I’ve been meaning to read this one. I think, especially when you are a parent who sends your child to school or enrolls them in extra-curriculars, you have a responsibility to the other kids your son or daughter comes into contact with.

    I love that we can talk about vampires alongside something very serious and very real!

  • I haven’t got past a sample of this yet, but I do plan to read the whole thing at one point. Especially now that you’ve mentioned vampires!

  • You spoke the magic words: “…just as much as I enjoy reading Mary Roach!”