Mark Zuckerberg reads a new book every two weeks (so he says) and he wants Facebook’s users to join him. On Wednesday, the Facebook founder announced that his latest pick is “On Immunity: An Inoculation,” a book by essayist Eula Biss that investigates why people fear vaccination.
“Vaccination is an important and timely topic,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post explaining his choice. “The science is completely clear: vaccinations work and are important for the health of everyone in our community.”
“This book explores the reasons why some people question vaccines, and then logically explains why the doubts are unfounded and vaccines are in fact effective and safe,” he continues, noting that Biss’s book is “relatively short” (it’s 216 pages), and was recommended to him by “scientists and friends who work in public health.”
Zuckerberg’s year-long book club works kind of like any other book club. But it has more members than a typical living room meet-up might. Zuckerberg picks a book, announces it, and anyone who wants to discuss it (on Facebook, of course) in a couple weeks is supposed to pick up a copy and read it. In the past, Zuckerberg has hosted live Q and A’s with the authors of his picks, with mixed success.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the effectiveness of attempts to convince those who fear vaccination of the scientifically sound reasons behind mass inoculation. At least one recent study has suggested that using a fact-based argument against anti-vaccination rhetoric is ineffective, and could actually backfire and make those with concerns about vaccines even less likely to seek them out.
Which is why Zuckerberg’s particular selection on this topic is interesting. Sure, it has literary merit: The New York Times magazine selected it as one of the 10 best books of 2014.
But there’s another thing, a more important thing, that Biss’s book contains: it introduces the wider discussion of fearing vaccines through the conversations the author had, as a new mother, with other mothers. Biss is an essayist, and “On Immunity” is a personal book. It is also historical, it’s a retelling of mythology and it is also a product of research.
As the Times’s review of “On Immunity” puts it, “Biss doesn’t linger on the outbreaks, nor does she refer to an ‘anti-vaccination movement.’ She speaks only of ‘mothers.’.” It continues:
“On Immunity” concludes by inviting us to relinquish illusions of the body’s independence and acknowledge our participation in a web of interdependency. This isn’t a treacly take on “community,” though. It’s the blunt reality of blood banks and organ donors. Biss reminds us that we owe each other our lives.”
And here’s an excerpt from the book itself, which follows Biss describing her pediatrician’s response to questions she raised about the Hepatitis B vaccine:
“The belief that public health measures are not intended for people like us is widely held by many people like me. Public health, we assume, is for people with less – less education, less healthy habits, less access to quality health care, less time and money. I have heard mother of my class suggest, for instance, that the standard childhood immunization schedule groups together multiple shots because poor people will not visit the doctor frequently enough to get the twenty-six recommended shots separately. No matter that any mother, myself included, might find so many visits daunting. That, we seem to be saying of the standard schedule, is for people like them.”
Incidentally, earlier this month, The Washington Post published an opinion piece from a former “vaccine skeptic” who said that an earlier essay by Biss on the topic helped her to understand for the first time how “herd immunity” actually works.