Book review: The art of viral communication

Lesley Morrison is a retired GP living in the Scottish Borders.

Many of us spend a large part of each working day thinking about Covid19, and many have reported that, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, their stress was aggravated by a deluge of confusing information. Things were changing very rapidly and the result was a huge quantity of low quality information.

The art of clear communication requires particular skills, clarity, brevity, reinforcement of key points and repeatability. This applies as much to communication between doctors and patients as it does to communication between managers and doctors, or between scientists and doctors.

Dr Ben Martynoga’s book, The Virus, is a prime example of effective communication. A neuroscientist at the forefront of brain research for more than a decade, he then swapped his white coat for a pen and his writing is precise, clear and enjoyable. He aimed to provide a “timely, fully-illustrated guide to de-mystify the coronavirus, for readers of all ages”. In the GP context, this means patients, young and older, GPs and their colleagues. As Sir Paul Nurse the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, and former president of the Royal Society says, “Reading this book is an adventure, an exciting journey through the strange world of viruses … If you want to know about viruses and coronavirus in particular, this is the book for you.”

With engaging illustrations by the artist and cartoonist, Moose Allain whose work features regularly in Private Eye and The Literary Review, The Virus sets out to provide answers to the key question, “It’s 15,000 times smaller than a flea and we can kill it with a bar of soap – so how did a tiny, fragile virus change the world?”

It’s 15,000 times smaller than a flea and we can kill it with a bar of soap – so how did a tiny, fragile virus change the world?

The principle on which the publisher, David Fickling books, bases its work is, “Our children deserve the finest scientists in the world as well as the finest authors and illustrators” and they rushed this book out to “de-mystify the coronavirus for readers of all ages” with the aim of helping all of us to understand why our lives changed so completely in 2020. It provides a communication tool for helpful conversations between parents and children, or between doctors and patients. It could usefully be left lying on waiting room coffee tables or kitchen tables in order to catalyse questions about a topic that we’re all anxious about.

Our children deserve the finest scientists in the world as well as the finest authors and illustrators.

As with all good communication, the book makes no assumption about the reader’s knowledge, starts with the basics and the first chapter is entitled, “What the heck is a virus?” Mixing hard scientific fact, stories and humour it takes the reader on a journey to understand why Covid 19 has been so successful and what science is doing to respond to it. It also offers ideas for future action, makes it clear that the viral pandemic and climate change threats are interlinked and suggests things we can do to address them both.

By the end of the book you may have a better grasp of virology and immunology than you acquired after several years of medical education. But, then, the author is an experienced writer and communicator who understands that getting a message across is about more than simply providing information.

The Virus will also help you to develop ideas about how to respond to questions, from patients, colleagues and offspring, about it. Anticipating such questions, Martynoga, in typically graphic language, says, “If the virus was a grain of sugar, your body would be as tall as Mount Everest. How can something so tiny bring the whole world to a standstill?”


Featured book

The Virus, Ben Martynoga. Publ: David Fickling Books, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-78845-210-6

The publishers are donating a percentage of all proceeds from The Virus to the Oxford University Support Coronavirus Research Fund.


Featured photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

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