In years to come, historians will have a clear handle on the story of the COVID-19 pandemic, and where true leadership and responsible citizenship did or did not occur. Great nonfiction history books can teach us something about past disasters in America, and help guide us as we live through today’s frightening crisis.

The book recommendations below cover subjects that, with one exception, don’t specifically resemble life under a pandemic. But their stories of vision, courage and resilience during widespread pain and catastrophe truly inspire.

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels” by Jon Meacham. The Pulitzer-winning author largely focuses here on persistent forces of white supremacy in America, which have slowed our democracy’s full promise and are stubbornly woven into today’s populist extremism. Meacham explains how a reinvigorated white supremacy in the postbellum South led some future presidents to ally themselves with segregationists for political gain, while other chief executives (motivated by the urgency of events and citizen activism) made halting progress against racism.

The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. Continuing the above theme but told from the perspective of a ground-level social movement, Wilkerson makes clear that Jim Crow culture in America’s Southern states was not only about segregation, but also a seemingly boundless, calculated sadism intended to keep life for Black Americans unimaginably cruel and oppressive. The 20th century’s Great Migration saw approximately 11 million Black Americans seek greater freedom by moving from the South to the Northeast, Midwest and the West, often at great peril and with little idea of what lay ahead. In vivid detail, Wilkerson explains how the clandestine purchase of a northbound train ticket was, by itself, an act of great personal courage.

Leadership In Turbulent Times” by Dorothy Kearns Goodwin. Presidential historian Goodwin revisits some of her favorite subjects (Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson) and demonstrates how a lifetime of formative experiences, personal and political ups and downs, and a deep compassion helped those leaders take the U.S. through times of rancor, explosive social change or war. Goodwin distills lessons on the value of real political experience, and why certain presidents have what it takes to push us forward.

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control” by Stephen Kinzer. The weirdest story in this group connects dots between former Nazi torturers, Oregon author Ken Kesey, Boston mobster Whitey Bulger and an obscure CIA chemist who qualifies as the ultimate James Bond villain. The latter was Sidney Gottlieb, who led, without oversight, extensive experiments (beginning in the 1950s) on unwitting subjects with massive amounts of LSD, often coupled with electroshock and other forms of torture in a doomed attempt to weaponize mind control. Kinzer’s startling reportage on Gottlieb’s amok research in secret, international detention cells can’t help but evoke more recent memories of Abu Ghraib and the like.

The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan. Seattle’s Egan, a New York Times columnist, raises awareness of just how destructive (and surreal) Dust Bowl pestilences were in the 1930s, and how they were especially severe and fatal in High Plains states. A result of multiple wrongheaded farming practices and related policies (such as wiping out bison), the Dust Bowl remains a stunning example of nature betrayed and made dangerous. The silver lining was that the search for solutions brought more heightened understanding, at the highest federal level, of human impact on the environment. Not that the lesson has necessarily stuck.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” by John M. Barry. I know. We’ve got enough to worry about. Why rehash a World War I-era scourge that infected a half-billion people around the globe, killing an estimated 17-50 million? “The Great Influenza” doesn’t just call up nightmarish numbers. Barry offers cautionary lessons we still haven’t learned about U.S. government shortsightedness. But he also points to advancements in science, medicine and public policy that emerged from two years of killer influenza. Instead of simply dragging us into the past, this book helps us envision life beyond our present moment.