Publication Day: On Immunity: An Inoculation


After months of buzzing anticipation, On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss is finally in stores—and is one of the most talked about books of the fall. The book first launched into the literary atmosphere when it was selected as a BEA Editors Buzz pick (one of only two nonfiction titles selected) at this year’s BookExpo America, the publishing industry’s largest and most influential tradeshow. The accolades have been coming in ever since—three starred pre-publication reviews, an appearance on NPR’s Morning Edition, a rave, full-page review in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, a full-page grade A review in Entertainment Weekly, and more.


In honor of the book’s publication this week, we thought that we’d take a look back at where On Immunity made its debut. Graywolf’s executive editor Jeffrey Shotts, who edited the book, was tasked with presenting On Immunity to 300+ booksellers, media-types, and publishing insiders at the BEA Buzz panel this past May. You can read an excerpt of his presentation below. Beware: Jeff’s passionate appeal for Eula’s brilliant book about the cultural myths, metaphors, and fears around vaccinations may be . . . infectious.


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In 2009, Graywolf published Biss’s landmark book, Notes from No Man’s Land, which has become a major touchstone for frank conversations about race and American culture, and which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism. Just last year, a rave review in Salon came out with this remarkable headline: “Is essayist Eula Biss Joan Didion’s heiress apparent?” I called Eula to point out this astonishing review, and I remember reading her that headline, to which she said, “Well, if I’m Didion’s heiress apparent, I’d like her East Side apartment, or maybe that white Stingray she’s driving on the cover of The White Album.” Those arrangements, last I heard, are still pending.


If Biss’s previous book is in line with Didion, then her new one, On Immunity, is in line with Susan Sontag. Biss has written a book that is brilliant, painstakingly researched, profoundly moving, and with ramifications that reach much, much further than the apparent subject at hand.


On Immunity is about vaccination—its history, its current implications, its meaning for the individual and the collective body. What’s in your seasonal flu shot? Will the vaccine you get be effective this year? Should you vaccinate your child? What vaccination schedule should you follow? Will vaccinating your children increase their chances of getting autism? These questions persist, in large part due to misinformation, celebrity spokespeople like Jenny McCarthy, and physicians like “Dr. Bob” who please their patients rather than care for them. Polio is occurring in higher numbers again in Cameroon, Syria, and Pakistan, causing the World Health Organization to declare an international public health emergency, when it was previously understood that polio was all but eradicated. In the United States, measles is making a comeback in thirteen states, reported earlier this year, most prevalently in New York City; there have been a number of mumps outbreaks this year, notably in Ohio; pertussis, or whooping cough, has been increasingly reported in urban areas across the country. These are all vaccine-preventable diseases.


As Biss points out, the group of people most likely not to be vaccinating their children are college-educated, white, and with household incomes of $75,000 and above. Why? As Anne Fadiman says in her marvelous statement on this book, it’s because “one parent’s decision to vaccinate a child comes from the same source as another parent’s not to. We are all afraid.”


Within this cultural moment, Biss describes her own fears as she becomes a new mother. She is beset by an oncoming rush of information and misinformation, about how and where her child should sleep, what toxins are in the air, what is in her child’s food, mattress, clothes, medicines, and vaccines. It is overwhelming. Much of that anxiety is imparted often enough by other seemingly more-informed parents, as well as by the evening news showing airports full of people in surgical masks, and media promoting anti-bacterial hand sanitizer in offices, clinics, schools, at every cash register. Biss writes, “It was as if the nation had joined me in the paranoia of infant care.”


And why not? For all of us, isn’t it our impulse to protect ourselves, and to protect our children? This impulse is so profound as to be mythic. Biss begins On Immunity with the story of the mother of Achilles dipping him as an infant into the River Styx in order to protect him, to make him invulnerable. The cover of the book is a detail of Rubens’ famous painting of this scene.


It’s a great image for this book, which investigates the myths and metaphors that govern our thinking about immunity and about each other. One of the metaphors Biss argues with is the unfortunately termed “Mommy Wars,” where mothers are pitted against doctors, or pitted against each other, where stereotypes abound and where everyone is made to be less than themselves. Like Sontag, Biss overturns those metaphors that belittle and embattle. In a playful “disclaimer” on the copyright page of the book, Biss writes: “Disclaimer: This book is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. It is an inoculation only against maladies of a metaphorical nature.”


If you find yourself thinking overturning metaphors is rarefied stuff, try going the rest of the day without using a military metaphor—“battling” traffic, “manning” your desk or station, “fighting off” a cold—and you see how violence is at the very core of how we relate with one another and the world. So are the metaphors of illness, disease, and contagion: we might say, for example, I am so “sick” of editors, I can’t “stomach” how they talk about books, they think they’ll all “go viral.” A literary agent recently told me, “I avoid writers’ conferences like ‘the plague.’”


The mythical and the metaphorical also imbue this book with a sense of wonder. Immunity, when we all participate in it, can seem like a magical aura, an invisible cloak of protection, hovering over and through us. Within that hovering, we are all interdependent, we are all, in fact, each other. If some of us—and especially the most priveleged of us—fear enough so as not to vaccinate, then everyone is at risk, and we have to consider another myth, as Biss recalls for us, and that is the myth of Narcissus, doomed only to see himself and not the beauty of others and the wider world.


The implications of this book are vast, persuasive, and life-changing. The brilliance of On Immunity is in its ramifications not only for health, medicine, and parenting, but also for the ways we think about race, class, education, government, immigration, the environment, and community.


But have I mentioned vampires? On Immunity is Graywolf’s first-ever vampire book. Vampires and Bram Stoker’s Dracula appear throughout as cultural emblems of fear, disease, and contagion, but also as figures whose legend grows up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries right alongside the history of vaccination, right up to the present. I suspect this maybe sounds at first a little far-fetched, but then again, so does vaccination itself: “The idea,” as Biss writes, “that pus from a sick cow can be scraped into a wound on a person and make that person immune to a deadly disease is almost as hard to believe now as it was in 1796.”  


Yes, there are vampires, and also cyborgs, zombies, Alice in Wonderland, time travel, Star Trek, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Voltaire’s Candide. The range of references is absolutely exhilarating. Very few writers are equipped to present such widely researched material and with sentences that are so alluring and persuasive that even the Notes in the back are compulsively readable.


I think we are lucky enough to be reading the groundbreaking early work of a writer on her way to becoming one of our true public intellectuals, in the ways of Barbara Ehrenreich and Andrew Solomon. Biss’s great question is “Why are we afraid of each other?”—and we feel braver just by reading her.


You get into publishing for the chance you might work on a book like On Immunity; you stay in publishing for the chance you might work with an author like Eula Biss. My admiration for Eula has turned into a decade-long friendship, which I have leaned on to make sense of everything from new nonfiction writing, to the behaviors of particular writers, to the anxieties caused by white privilege, and most recently, what it means to be a parent.



Adapted from Jeff Shotts’s 2014 BEA Editors Buzz Panel presentation on Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation