“The womb is sterile,” Eula Biss observes toward the end of “On Immunity: An Inoculation,” her meditation on the risks and rewards of vaccination, “and so birth is the original inoculation.” From the moment of our emergence, this means, we are equally confirmed and compromised. It is in the passage from our mothers’ bodies, after all, that we are first exposed to the germs and microbes that both threaten and, in many ways, define us and without which, in the most literal sense, we cannot survive.

“We have more microorganisms in our guts,” Biss writes, “than we have cells in our bodies – we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.” That’s the point of this elegant, intelligent and very beautiful book, which occupies a space between research and reflection, investigating our attitudes toward immunity and inoculation through a personal and cultural lens.

Inspired by the birth of her son and subsequent encounters with parents opposed to vaccination (in California, as an example, families are choosing not to vaccinate at a rate twice that of seven years ago), Biss moves from folklore to epidemiology to literature, riffing on Voltaire and “Dracula,” mercury and autism, paranoia and politics.

She is a vigorous advocate for inoculation; throughout the book, she reveals the rhetoric of the anti-vaccination movement for the sophistry it is. At the same time, she understands the fear at its heart. “Having children,” a friend reminds her, “is the greatest risk you can take,” and anyone who has been a parent knows that she is right.

We live in a culture that prides itself on being rational, when in fact we are as governed by superstitions, suppositions, as we ever were. As to why this is, she argues, it has to do not with what is true so much as what we wish were true, which leads us “to lend false credibility to … idea(s) that we want to believe for other reasons.”

We want to believe we are immune from uncertainty, from unknowing, from the danger of living, loving, of the vagaries of fate. And yet, what can we be sure of, really? The answer is nothing.

In that regard, “On Immunity” seeks to function as a cultural inoculation; hence the subtitle of the book. It is elliptical, elusive, neither collection nor narrative exactly, but more a set of questions about how we frame our interactions with the world.


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