As we all hunker down in quarantine from the global spread of SARS-CoV-2 and associated COVID19, some may have extra time available, perhaps to pick up a good book. We therefore thought we’d help out by offering a list of suggested pandemic-related readings. To start off, fifteen suggested non-fiction titles to accompany the latest news you might be getting through sources like This Week in Virology. To follow, twenty suggested novels that feature pandemic outbreak in one form or another. I'm sure that I've missed a few that readers might know of as well, so let us know if you do.
Before that, a note for those who still remain busy amid essential services or maintaining family life, and don't have the time to commit to a full book. There are countless short stories out there featuring a pandemic as a plot point, but one short story in particular comes to my mind that I'd recommend. That is "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain" by James Tiptree, Jr. For those who aren't familiar with Tiptree, it is the pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon, who in addition to being a writer, worked at one time or another as a research psychologist, World War II intelligence officer, CIA agent, and chicken farmer. She sadly killed herself in 1987, but left behind a volume of respected speculative fiction, including the above story of viral pathogen release.
On to the lists, each presented in alphabetical order by author:
- The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry (Penguin Books) – One of two well-known works (see Kolata below) on this list that present the biology of influenza and the history of the 1918 pandemic for a general audience. I first read this back in graduate school while TAing microbiology and still use it as a source for class this day.
- Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History by Dorothy H. Crawford (Oxford University Press) – I read and enjoyed the author's book Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, so I've also picked up a copy of her older general work covering the impact of infection on human history up through the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s.
- Pandemics by Peter C. Doherty (Oxford University Press) – Part of OUP's "What Everyone Needs to Know" series, Nobel Prize winning immunologist and veterinary surgeon Doherty writes a comprehensive and succinct review of the topic: what pandemics are, which have occurred, which may likely occur, and what governments and individuals are doing/can do to combat them.
- Envisioning Disease, Gender and War: Women's Narratives of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic by Jane E. Fisher (Palgrave Macmillan) – One of the more specialty titles on this list, Fisher's book is unique in offering sociological perspectives on the 1918 influenza pandemic with a focus on the often-ignored role that women played during this period. Fisher is faculty in the English Department and Women’s & Gender Studies program at Canisius College, where I teach.
- The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett (Penguin Books) – Though published in 1995, this title makes it clear that the arrival of COVID19 was certainly not something that ‘couldn’t be predicted’. At least not in the general sense.
- China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic by Karl Taro Greenfeld (Harper) – This book details the history of the first SARS outbreak of 2002 – 2004, something given greater poignancy and relevance today. I haven't had the chance to read it, but plan to for mixing with current events when teaching about coronaviruses in class in the future.
- The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly (Harper Perennial) – A history of the events that gave us the term 'plague' and 'pestilence', the spread of Yersinia pestis infection throughout Eurasia and North Africa in the mid-14th Century.
- Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – The second of two well-known works (see Barry above) on this list that present the biology of influenza and the history of the 1918 pandemic for a general audience. Kolata is an outstanding science writer and I'd encourage you to seek out her other titles as well.
- Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs by Michael T. Osterholm & Mark Olshaker (Little, Brown Spark) – Not one I had heard of before researching this post, but the publisher's description and good reviews of the book have me intrigued: "Drawing on the latest medical science, case studies, policy research, and hard-earned epidemiological lessons, [this book] explores the resources and programs we need to develop if we are to keep ourselves safe from infectious disease."
- The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston (Anchor Books) – I hesitate to include this here as a 'recommendation', and I even considered putting it in 'fiction'. But this book is so popular and well-known that it couldn't be left off. But, caveat emptor, the language used to describe Ebola in this is rather sensationalized, and has been accused of exaggeration.
- Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen (W.W. Norton Co.) – I have read the Ebola sections of this book and was impressed by Quammen's engaging, and balanced writing. You've likely read his work in popular press articles if not his full-length works.
- Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah (Sarah Crichton Books) – A more recent (2016) work featuring a broad coverage of human-related pandemics. Author Shah previously wrote a well-respected book on malaria and she is another frequent contributor to popular press both written and radio/podcast.
- The Power of Plagues, Second Edition by Irwin W. Sherman (ASM Press) – A comprehensive survey of infectious disease spread through human history. I reviewed this title previously for the blog.
- And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts (St. Martin's Griffin) – Also made into a film, I'm sure most have heard of this definitive history of the AIDS epidemic. A riveting and sorrowful look into the merging of science, medicine, society, and politics.
- Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag (Penguin Classics) – A unique sociological perspective relevant to pandemics that I think it's important to remember. Sontag's essays remind us of how illness is treated in language and social interactions – whether infectious or not. She speaks of the blame and spin that accompany narratives that deal with human tragedy, and which can enhance the suffering of the ill. Important to remember as we look at the origin of SARS-CoV-2, its spread, and the socioeconomical divides that it lays bare.
- The Fever by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown and Co.) – Award-winning and character-driven YA novel about a small-town high school that becomes the breeding ground for a mysterious illness. Though it may be classified for young adults, its impact can be felt by any.
- Ship Fever: Stories by Andrea Barrett (W.W. Norton and Co.) – National Book Award-winning collection of stories by a biology-trained writer. I used this in my Biology in Fiction course as an example of 'real' science in fiction. Barrett's female scientist characters populate literary stories historical to contemporary and I couldn't recommend them more. The title story in this collection, however, is most relevant here. A powerful account of love and sacrifice amid typhus outbreak among Irish immigrants to Canada.
- Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin Books) – I still have yet to read her, but Brooks' historical fiction is consistently praised. This novel is set in 1666 London, the apocalyptic setting of the last major English bubonic plague epidemic.
- The Plague by Albert Camus, translated by Robin Buss (Penguin Books) – Speaking of plagues, what work could present it better than Camus' La Peste? Long read mainly as a symbolic representation of 'deeper' issues through a disease, the novel is now being rediscovered for its accurate science/medicine and descriptions of pandemic in an urban setting. Not surprising, given the intellectual flow of ideas between Camus and molecular biologist friend Jacques Monod. If you can’t read the original French, this translation is ideal to go with.
- Outbreak by Robin Cook (Putnam) – Despite the exact same title and similar storyline, this medical thriller is not the basis for the 2005 film. I don't think the film is worth much at all, and I've never read Cook, but if you're looking for a fanciful, exciting take on Ebola, this might be an alternate to The Hot Zone.
- The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (Vintage) – Classic early thriller from the author of Jurassic Park, this features scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial microbe in New Mexico. Like several Crichton works, later adapted into a film.
- A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (Dover Thrift) – Another, more classic story chronicling life in 1665/1666 London during the Great Plague Epidemic. First presented as nonfiction, the text can be found for free on Project Gutenberg, but a Dover Thrift edition hard copy of one's own won't set you back much.
- Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit Books) – Pseudonym for prolific science fiction/fantasy/horror author Seanan McGuire, Mira Grant thrillers are hugely popular quick reads. I read one entry from her Parasitology series and found it decent entertainment, if biologically suspect. Feed is a recent example of the ubiquitous virus-turns-humans-into-zombies plot. Reviews from friends of mine suggest Grant does the cliché well in interesting ways.
- Twelve Monkeys by Elizabeth Hand (HarperPrism) – I wasn't going to include this at first, but Roberto mentioned remembering the movie. Then I saw that the novelization was written by Elizabeth Hand, who does some superb work. So this might indeed be worth checking out along with Terry Gilliam's film. Props to those that also go watch the 1962 French La Jetée from Chris Marker that inspired Gilliam's movie.
- The White Plague by Frank Herbert (Tor Books) – The author of the beloved Dune wrote this revenge novel about a molecular biologist whose family is killed by IRA terrorists, pushing him into plans involving a manufactured plague that is carried by men and kills women. Released within the nations whose politics he views as given rise to the tragic events befalling his family, he demands quarantine to let the plague run its course and wipe out the population, or he will release more. Not a feel-good kinda novel.
- Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Scholastic Books) – A young adult novel featuring teens adapting to a world where a deadly flu virus sweeps the nation, forcing quarantines, curfews, and martial law. I've read and enjoyed numerous short speculative works by Johnson. This won the Nebula Award for Best YA Novel and she has a new novel, Trouble the Saints, coming from Tor in June.
- The Stand (Complete and Uncut) by Stephen King (Doubleday Books) – I read this novel while home from school with the Chicken Pox and King's style and characters quickly became influential in my own amateur little stories. Classic and literally hefty work where humanity is quickly wiped out by a pandemic and the survivors struggle with biblical stakes in a post-apocalyptic world.
- The Scarlet Plague by Jack London (Project Gutenberg) – I didn't realize that London wrote a post-apocalyptic novella, but here you go. I have never read anything by him I liked, but maybe this genre will sit better. Available for free, but harder to get in print other than packaged with other stories.
- Severance by Ling Ma (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – A newly released 'offbeat office novel' turns 'apocalyptic satire' featuring a millennial so focused on her work in self-sequestration that she barely notices a society-breaking pandemic rush through the New York outside her windows. I caught notice of this one in a recent issue of The New Yorker, but haven't picked up a copy yet.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf Publishing Group) – I am always leery of 'literary' authors that try their hand at post-apocalyptic genre. The genre field has already done it. Far better, usually. Despite all of the love this novel gets, I've resisted reading it with that hesitance. However, Janie vouches for it being awesome, so I will eventually give it a read.
- The Migration by Helen Marshall (Random House/Titan) – Last year I reviewed this novel for Strange Horizons, and I'll reiterate here just how great I think it is. Marshall uses her strengths at writing otherworldly eerie prose to paint the process of adolescence reaching maturity through a lens of frightening pandemic change.
- Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon (Pocket Books) – As thick as (or thicker than?) The Stand, this novel is another epic post-apocalypse following outbreak novel, in this case published in 1987. I recall it being unjustly compared to King's novel, which though written well before was riding a reboost from King's rising popularity. I really want to reread Swan Song again because I remember adoring it, but little else.
- Blindness by José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – One of the novels noted by the Nobel Prize committee when awarding the Portuguese author in 1998, the plot of this involves a mass epidemic of blindness throughout an unnamed city, closely followed by social breakdown.
- Lock In by John Scalzi (Tor Books) – A police procedural/science fiction mash-up genre novel set years following the release of a highly contagious virus. While most of the infected only express flu-like symptoms, a 1% minority become rendered fully awake, but unable to respond to stimuli.
- The End of October by Lawrence Wright (Knopf Publishing Group) – Coming soon, this medical thriller novel is already making waves in the press for its prescient plot of global viral pandemic outbreak. Featuring a microbiologist/epidemiologist protagonist and written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, it's a highly anticipated title. I managed to get a pdf advanced reading copy, so look for a review post on it here soon.
Until then, happy reading!
Postscript added in proof:
Sunday's New York Times featured an article in the Opinion section entitled "What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us" by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, and translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap. Along with Dafoe's plague novel, it discusses an early work by Manzoni I hadn't known of, and mentions a novel that Pamuk is currently writing entitled "Nights of Plague". Given Pamuk's influences include Dostoevsky and Mann, I need to check out his novels and now eagerly await this new one. The article is a nice consideration of our historical response to pandemic through literature, and what that says about our humanity. Thanks to Elio for catching this article online before its hard copy appearance to me over morning coffee.