On Immunity

Eula Biss

French paperback with flaps, 208 pages | Paperback, 208 pages
Published 18 February 2015

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In this bold, fascinating book, Eula Biss addresses a chronic condition of fear – fear of the government, the medical establishment, and what may be in your children’s air, food, mattresses, medicines, and vaccines. Reflecting on her own experience as a new mother, Biss investigates the metaphors and myths surrounding our conception of immunity and its implications for the individual and the social body. 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 an inoculation against our fear and a moving account of how we are all interconnected – our bodies and our fates.

Selected for Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook ‘Year in Books’ in February 2015 | Shortlisted for 2014 NBCC Awards | New York Times Top 10 Books of 2014 | Publisher’s Weekly Top 10 Books of the Year | Time Out 10 Best Books of 2014

‘Sontag said she wrote Illness as Metaphor to “calm the imagination, not to incite it,” and On Immunity also seeks to cool and console. But where Sontag was imperious, Biss is stealthy. She advances from all sides, like a chess player, drawing on science, myth, literature to herd us to the only logical end, to vaccinate.’
— Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

New Yorker

On Immunity is brave because it will attract hostility from those she implies are selfish or misguided in refusing to vaccinate. Her arguments are profoundly compelling, and her narratives are braided together with beauty and elegance. The book is itself an inoculation – it grafts and unites different traditions of the essay, and in doing so creates something stronger and more resilient. And its urgent message is an inoculation against ignorance and fearmongering: may it spread out through the world, bringing substance and common sense to the vaccination debate.’ 
— Gavin Francis, Guardian

On Immunity explores the controversy over vaccinations in the United States; yet this description fails to capture the book’s beauty, breadth, nuance, and timeliness. Amid insightful disquisitions on a host of topics, Biss relates her experiences as a first-time mother negotiating a series of health crises her son faced in his early years and her evolving thoughts about immunizations. But what makes this book so vital right now is its discussion of the ideas and issues we have all become conversant with since this awful year began: herd immunity, viral transmission, and our role as citizens in what Biss refers to at different times as immunity’s “public space,” its “garden.”’
Matthew Davis, Los Angeles Review of Books

‘On Immunity is as political as it is personal – Biss rails against a capitalism that has made unnatural individuals of us all – and as philosophical as it is political…. What Biss does best, however, is doubt. She develops arguments and amasses detail but she also allows her writing to be shot through with uncertainty. Not often does a writer baldly admit that they don’t know what something means (in this case, the ending of Candide). It is a very human non-fiction that emerges, comfortable with its questions.’
—  Sophie Elmhirst, Financial Times

‘The primary malady Biss confronts is fear. Weaving fluidly between cultural touchstones that express our preoccupation with bodily contamination (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), Biss subtly builds a case for surpassing it. She addresses and debunks outdated but common concerns … On Immunity advances a compelling central thesis: “We owe each other our bodies.” Through her discussion of immunity and vaccination, Biss posits that our individual health is inextricably linked to the collective health of our communities and that we must act accordingly.’
Paloma Pacheco, The Tyee

‘Imagine Eula Biss as herself a vaccine against vague and incoherent thinking, as a booster to the acuity of your thought, as a thermometer taking the temperature of our ideas about purity, contagion, individuality, and community. This book is a magnificent piece of research and of writing.’ 
— Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking

‘Like so many great nonfiction classics, On Immunity will teach, provoke, chafe, inspire, haunt, and likely change its many readers. Its central, difficult, and ecstatic premise – that “we owe each other our bodies” – couldn’t be more urgent, as the question of how we contend with this interdependence, this collectivity, is fundamental to our human present and future.’
— Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts

‘Eula Biss accomplishes two remarkable things in this book. She efficiently dismantles the wall between self-documentation and world-documentation. And she synthesizes a vast amount of information into the haunting and inescapable conclusion that “we are … continuous with everything here on earth, including – and especially – each other.”’
— Sarah Manguso, author of The Guardians: An Elegy

On Immunity … weaves metaphor and myth, science and sociology, philosophy and politics into a tapestry rich with insight and intelligence.’
— Jerome Groopman, The New York Review of Books

‘A philosophical look at the history and practice of vaccination that reads like Joan Didion at her best. If you are yourself a nonfiction author, your initial response to this book might be to decide immediately on another line of work; Biss is that intimidatingly talented … This is cultural commentary at its highest level, a searching examination of the most profound issues of health, identity and the tensions between individual parenting decisions and society.’ 
— The Washington Post

‘[An] 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.’ 
— Los Angeles Times 

‘I was happy to have found an essayist of striking originality, a writer able to dissect difficult issues with poetic skill informed by personal insight and powerful research.’
Ian Birrell, i

‘Biss eloquently dismantles the myths of self-reliance and individualism that underlie anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.’
Sophie Murguia, Outside Magazine

Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which received the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, and On Immunity. Her essays have appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Best Creative Nonfiction, as well as in the Believer and Harper’s. Her writing has been supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Howard Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Biss holds a BA from Hampshire College and an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa. She teaches at Northwestern University and lives in Chicago.