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Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus

How a tiny cluster of genes and proteins gave rise to zombie and vampire mythology.

Our understanding of what it means to be human hinges on an understanding of consciousness and, perhaps more than anything, a sense of control over or, at the very least, access to it. But what happens when a microscopic particle enters the body, takes hold of the mind, and gnaws away that access to our own consciousness? Is what remains “human”?

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus (public library), Wired senior editor Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy, a husband-and-wife duo, trace the fascinating history of the ubiquitous and menacing virus that shaped everything from the Holy Crusades to modern zombie and vampire pop-culture mythology.

Wasik and Murphy write:

It is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills nearly 100 percent of its hosts in most species, including humans. Fittingly, the rabies virus is shaped like a bullet: a cylindrical shell of glycoproteins and lipids that carries, in its rounded tip, a malevolent payload of helical RNA. On entering a living thing, it eschews the bloodstream, the default route of nearly all viruses but a path heavily guarded by immuno-protective sentries. Instead, like almost no other virus known to science, rabies sets its course through the nervous system, creeping upstream at one or two centimeters per day (on average) through the axoplasm, the transmission lines that conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain. Once inside the brain, the virus works slowly, diligently, fatally to warp the mind, suppressing the rational and stimulating the animal. Aggression rises to fever pitch; inhibitions melt away; salivation increases. The infected creature now has only days to live, and these he will likely spend on the attack, foaming at the mouth, chasing and lunging and biting in the throes of madness — because the demon that possesses him seeks more hosts.

If it sounds like a horror movie, we should not be surprised, for it is a scenario bound up into our very concept of horror. Rabies is a scourge as old as human civilization, and the terror of its manifestation is a fundamental human fear, because it challenges the boundary of humanity itself. That is, it troubles the line where man ends and animal begins.

Such is the paralyzing fear of rabies, in fact, that when Louis Pasteur was developing the very vaccine to fight the menace and had to extract the virus from the jaws of madly growling infected dogs, he and his two collaborators kept a loaded gun ready — not just for the dog, but for any researcher who got bitten and infected. Mary Cressac, the niece of Pasteur’s collaborator Emile Roux, recalls:

At the beginning of each session a loaded revolver was placed within their reach. If a terrible accident were to happen to one of them, the more courageous of the two others would put a bullet in his head.

And yet, more than two centuries after Pasteur successfully pioneered the rabies vaccine, 55,000 people die from rabies globally each year. Curiously, the greatest risk of rabies for humans in the developed world today comes from bats, which can bite you in your sleep without awaking you. Once the virus has progressed, the two most common symptoms in humans are hydrophobia — a deathly, irrational fear of water — and hypersexuality, which causes some patients to experience hourly involuntary orgasms.

Though certainly not for the squeamish, Rabid offers an illuminating, terrifying, yet strangely entertaining chronicle of this tiny cluster of proteins and genes that has the power to challenge and, ultimately, alter our very conception of what it means to be human.

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Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing

“Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian reached out to some of today’s most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her commandments. After Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, here come 8 from the one and only Neil Gaiman:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Image by Kimberly Butler

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Antilamentation: A Poetic Antidote to Regret

“You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake.”

“The useless days will add up to something….These things are your becoming,” Cheryl “Sugar” Strayed wisely advised.

The psychology of regret is indeed one of the most fascinating and universal equalizers of the human experience — one poet Dorianne Laux captures with breathless poignancy in “Antilamentation,” found in her The Book of Men: Poems (public library) and read here by Tom O’Bedlam.

Exhale and enjoy:

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,b
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering any of it.
Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.

Thanks, Kerri

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