On Immunity

On Immunity
An Inoculation
Eula Biss

One of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2014
One of Publishers Weekly’s Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2014
One of the Millions Most Anticipated Books

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A Publishers Weekly PW Pick of the Week
A finalist for the 2015 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award

An Indies Choice Book Awards Honoree

“Biss’ eye-opening nonfiction work critiques America's fear of vaccines while examining the connection between soul and body."Entertainment Weekly, "A Dozen Fall Books We're Dying to Read"

About the Book

Why do we fear vaccines? A provocative examination by Eula Biss, author of Notes from No Man’s Land, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
On becoming a new mother, Eula Biss addresses a chronic condition of fear—fear of the government, the medical establishment, 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, 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.

Additional Reviews

“Subtle, spellbinding. . . . 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.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Eula Biss sanely takes on the anti-vaccine mob.”Vanity Fair

On Immunity: An Inoculation is a philosophical look at the history and practice of vaccination that reads like Joan Didion at her best. If you are yourself a nonficiton 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

On Immunity casts a spell. . . . There’s a drama in watching this smart writer feel her way through this material. She’s a poet, an essayist, and a class spy. She digs honestly into her own psyche and into those of ‘people like me,’ and she reveals herself as believer and apostate, moth and flame.’—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Biss infuses her in-depth study on why we as a society fear vaccines with her own experiences with raising a child. She cites literary greats (Sontag, Stoker, Voltaire) on the topic of immunization, connecting literary history with our deep-rooted avoidance of protective shots.”The Huffington Post, Best Books for Fall 2014
"An eloquent consideration of the anti-vaccination movement. . . . [Biss] lays out an argument for vaccination that encompasses literature, history, science, and her fears and questions when deciding to vaccinate her own children. She brings a sober, erudite, and humane voice to an often overheated debate."—The New Yorker, "Books to Watch Out For"

“With beautiful writing and a firm grounding in literature, class, and medicine, [Biss] successfully wrenches a divisive and surprisingly nuanced topic away from our loudest, dumbest voices. (Spoiler: She supports vaccination.) You’ll never look at swine flu, childbirth, or vampires in the same way again.”Vulture, “8 Books You Need to Read This September”

“Deftly interweaving personal history, cultural analysis, science journalism, and literary criticism, On Immunity investigates vaccinations from many angles—as the mechanism that protects us from disease, a metaphor for our wish for invulnerability, and a class-based privilege. . . . [Biss] has been compared to Joan Didion, and the reasons are obvious here. Like Didion she has a gift for coming at her subjects from all sides, in unsentimental, lyrical prose.”—Meghan O’Rourke, Bookforum

“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

“A welcome antidote—or ‘inoculation,’ as the subtitle suggests—against the toxic shouting match occurring between ‘anti-vaxxers’ and their opponents. . . . Biss leaps nimbly through a vertiginous range of subjects. . . . Brilliant and entertaining.”—The Boston Globe

“Fascinating. . . . This is a deeply philosophical book, one that’s less concerned with pure science than with the elemental fear that we can never protect our children from the world. . . . By exploring the anxieties about what’s lurking inside our flu shots, the air, and ourselves, [Biss] drives home the message that we are all responsible for one another. On Immunity will make you consider that idea on a fairly profound level. So now do you want to read a book about vaccination? Well, if anyone can convince you that it’s your moral obligation to do so, it’s Biss.”—Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A
"Biss's gracious rhetoric and her insistence that she feels 'uncomfortable with both sides' of the rancorous fight may frustrate readers looking for a pro-vaccine polemic. Yet her approach might actually be more likely to sway fearful parents, offering them an alternative set of images and associations to use in thinking about immunization. . . . Compelling. . . . This is writing designed to conquer anxiety."—The New Yorker

“Biss breaks down the misconceptions we have about [vaccinations]. . . . With precise, lyrical, and unforgettable prose. . . . An impeccably researched book that spans centuries, continents and cultures.”—The Kansas City Star

“Biss’s bold, timely new book gracefully explores the concept of immunity—and why we fear vaccines—against the backdrop of new motherhood.”—Cosmopolitan

“With the same sort of intellectual shrewdness and precision that characterized her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Notes from No Man’s Land, Biss persuades us that our fates are more mutually dependent than we had ever imagined.”—Harper’s Magazine

On Immunity is a history, a personal narrative, ultimately a powerful argument that reads, the whole time, like a poem. The book’s tone is gentle and pleasant that you hardly realize you are being persuaded of something, but by the end you will contain new wisdom about bodies and community, and in this way the book earns its subtitle: an inoculation.”—Guernica, Editor’s Pick

“Incisive and eloquent. . . . At a moment when fear of vaccination can rival—even surpass—fear of disease, this is a brave attempt to inject some sense into a crucial conversation.”—Cathleen Medwick, MORE Magazine

“A compassionate and informative meditation on our responsibility to care not only for those we love, but for our entire human community.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“[An] elegant treatise. . . . An idiosyncratic work in which clarity is achieved through, and not despite, its vine-to-vine associations—the swinging, sometimes within single paragraphs, between the worlds of literature, philosophy, and scientific study. More than vaccinations, the book is about the undertaking of argument, and demonstrates a deft and literary-minded synthesis of the wastes of information that now boggle clear thought on most every subject, but especially this one. It is about the impossibility of complete or certain knowledge, and the necessity of seeking balanced understanding in its place.”—New Republic

“A whirlwind 163-page spin through medical history, literature including Dracula and Candide, and musings on what it means to make individual decisions that affect the health of an entire community. . . . A coherent, eloquent plea for a sense beyond oneself.”—Dallas Morning News

“A brilliant and empathetic exploration of the vaccine wars, at once entertaining and useful, for parents or anyone else seeking a more complex understanding of immunology and vaccines. Biss’s respectful argument for continued childhood inoculation makes her book—full of scintillating narratives, riveting bits of history, and touching memoirs that can be relished for their own sake—one that all vaccine skeptics should read.”The American Scholar

“Brilliantly executed. . . . Without ever entering the realm of the preachy or the obstinate, Biss transposes the idea of vaccination from the cold scientific world to a warmer space of empathy: ‘If vaccination can be conscripted into acts of war, it can still be instrumental in works of love.’ And just like that, you’ll never think of a simple shot the same way again.”—Time Out New York

“The gifted essayist Eula Biss is the daughter of a poet and a doctor. With her important new book. . . . she illuminates fear of vaccines with a lucidity and grace that honors both her bloodlines. . . . Biss’ erudition makes the book a pleasure, even as it renders her argument for vaccination profound.”—Newsday
“[A] far-reaching and unusual investigation into immunity. . . . Artfully mixing motherhood, myth, maladies, and metaphors into her presentation, Biss transcends medical science and trepidation.”Booklist, starred review

On Immunity is insightful and thought-provoking. Biss’ meticulous research, paired with her ability to explain the controversy scientifically, culturally and emotionally, makes for a fascinating, compelling and very human story.”—Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“A book of startling, remarkable images.”—Chicago Tribune

“[On Immunity] would fit snugly on a bookshelf between Susan Sontag’s ‘AIDS and Its Metaphors’ and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of all Maladies. . . . Immunity, ultimately, is a shared experience and responsibility, Biss argues convincingly.”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“[On Immunity] is a necessary book—a hefty dose of compassionate rationality prescribed by our contemporary heir to Voltaire—asking us to take a long, hard look at the societal consequences of individual choices.”Los Angeles Review of Books
“Biss ably tracks the progress of immunization. . . . Biss also administers a thoughtful, withering critique to more recent fears of vaccines—the toxins they carry, from mercury to formaldehyde, and accusations of their role in causing autism. The author keeps the debate lively and surprising, touching on Rachel Carson here and ‘Dr. Bob’ there. She also includes her father’s wise counsel, which accommodates the many sides of the topic but arrives at a clear point of view: Vaccinate. Brightly informative, giving readers a sturdy platform from which to conduct their own research and take personal responsibility.”Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Biss advocates eloquently for childhood immunization, making her case as an anxious new mother intent on protecting her son—and understanding the consequences. Her exploration is both historical and emotional. . . . Biss frankly and optimistically looks at our ‘unkempt’ world and our shared mission to protect one another.”Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Biss respectfully presents the broad spectrum of issues surrounding contemporary thoughts on inoculation, and while her own conclusions are evident, she invites a dialogue rather than presents a definitive proclamation.”—Shelf Awareness

On Immunity probes a slew of big ideas, from the fiction of purity to the failure of government. . . . In lesser hands, tackling so many themes could result in a mess. But Biss is able to pull it off, thanks to her intellectual poise and her lucid, frequently aphoristic prose.”—Boston Review

“Biss’s project. . . . is far grander than a simple explanation of the facts. . . . Few writers are able to so seamlessly stitch together literature, theory, personal experience, and science.”—The Millions

“Compelling and wide-ranging.”The Globe and Mail

"If you're looking for a smart analysis of the confluence of metaphor and medical decisions, this is it."—James Geary

“There are some nonfiction books whose very concept would be unthinkable without the peculiar interests and intelligence of their author. Books that are as strikingly unique as the person who writes them. Books like On Immunity by Eula Biss. . . . [Biss is a] combination of all the greatest nonfiction writers of the 20th century.”—Fiction Advocate
“That we still inhabit the imperfect world of Notes from No Man’s Land is made explicit in On Immunity. Here we must come to terms with all that humanity has wrought upon this Earth—the injustice, the pollution, the chemicals in our food and in our bodies—and accept that it is now a part of us. This time, Eula doesn’t leave us in ruins. She leaves us with something perhaps more useful: a vision of humanity enduring, proceeding, together.”Numéro Cinq
“A timely, expansive, tremendously important book. . . . At a time when the body has reentered our political discourse as a loaded metaphorical space, On Immunity is an awesome gift.”—Katharine Solheim, Unabridged Bookstore
“A unique and stimulating new book. . . . I loved On Immunity; it gave clarity to my view of the world.”—Sarah Bagby, Watermark Books
“Thoroughly thought-provoking. . . . Perfect for fans of important books such as The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison and Breasts by Florence Williams.”—Liberty Hardy, Riverrun Bookstore
“This book has been amongst my most surprising reads of the year so far. . . . Readers of Susan Sontag and Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies will find great riches here. This is really creative nonfiction at its best.”—Robert Sindelar, Third Place Books
“Biss writes with the precision of a journalist and the passion of an expectant mother. An important and wonderful book.”— Jeremy Ellis, Brazos Books

“Biss’s book is stunning, smart, very timely, and conversation-provoking. Read it, pass it around, discuss it—I cannot recommend it highly enough!”—Sheryl Cotleur, Copperfield’s Books
“Biss will answer all of your questions (and so many you never thought to ask) with lyrical grace, uncompromising intelligence, and a broad yet precise scope. This is an exhilarating, magnificent read.”—Kirsten Jennings, Bookbug
“Biss’s precise language and wry humor make On Immunity as engaging as it is informative.”—Brooke Alexander, Brazos Bookstore

“A tour-de-force about one of the most important and relevant issues of our times.”—A. N. Devers, Community Bookstore

“Full of brilliant moments. . . . Biss’s approach to immunity is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor.The Nation

“In addition to her sharp analysis, Biss . . . has a remarkable grasp of language. . . . Biss finds the common ground underlying the full range of individual decisions. In so doing, she gets beyond the polarizing debate and to the heart of what we are really trying to talk about.American Scientist

“Biss’s book makes me feel safer amidst all the anger and confusion, not because she dismisses and dissolves a larger problem, but because she struggles throughout her book to create a language and a framework to talk about the issues of communal safety in a world where the individual is problematically valued above the society that surrounds it. . . . An elegant and illuminating exploration.”Gulf Coast

“I can’t think of an American writer at work today who matches Eula Biss’s combination of lyrical precision, exhaustive research, timely provocation, and fiercely examined conscience. 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. I’m so glad Eula Biss is along for the ride, and sometimes, as here, willing to act as our fearless, fearful guide.”—Maggie Nelson

“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

“As Eula Biss makes clear in this well-written journey through history, medicine, and her own experience as a mother, one parent’s decision to vaccinate a child comes from the same source as another parent’s not to. We are all afraid. Biss is a candid, original, and unfailingly smart guide through these thorny thickets.”Anne Fadiman

“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, a surprising but welcome departure in the career of one of the best younger essayists at work. And it has vampires in it.”—Rebecca Solnit

“A thoughtful and probing analysis of the cultural myths surrounding vaccination. Biss mines within herself and within her community to understand how and why such myths gain traction in society.”Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, author of What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine
“The inexplicableness of our human minds have led us to move forward and backward and sometimes in circles, but once in a while a clear voice puts a momentary stop to that muddled movement—not to interfere but to allow a pause for us to question, to reexamine the familiar, and to demystify the common belief. Eula Biss gives us that voice in this audacious book, and offers a thorough understanding of one of the most important experiences that we all share—vaccination.”—Yiyun Li 

“In this important book, Eula Biss investigates immunity as a metaphorical and social concept, as well as hard science, taking on the anti-vaccine crowd and delivering a smart and thoughtful commentary on contemporary society at the same time.”—Refinery 29, “16 Books You Need to Read This Fall”

“One of the best [books] I’ve read this year.”—Bustle
"Biss writes with measured prose and careful research, skills in generally short supply in our aggregated, hyper-aggressive culture of argument."—Gawker

“[A] quietly impassioned call for responsible childhood immunization.”—Nature

“While the subject matter of On Immunity, at first glance, may strike some as unappealing, in the hand of an author as thoughtful, wise and honest as Eula Biss, it takes on a significance that reaches far beyond its ostensible subject. How refreshing it would be if more of our public policy debates had such able expositors.”—Book Reporter

“A combination of mythology, morality, medicine and mortality that is like nothing you’ve ever read before. . . . Biss’ thoughtful writing contains levels of meaning and plenty to ponder on every page.”—BookPage

“A smart, sophisticated examination of a divisive issues.”—New York Post