Our fears are often fed by uncertainty and a lack of understanding. For many, reading works that explore our current reality provides comforting clarity, empathy and perspective. The following pandemic-related reading can help us see how others have encountered challenges that we face, and perhaps help us imagine how we can move forward into a changed world.
Since fifth-century Athens, plague has been the bane of cities. Yet when cholera struck London in 1854 amid a worldwide pandemic, our understanding of contagion had advanced little since the Ancient Greeks. Steven Johnson’s captivating true-life mystery “The Ghost Map” tells the story of Dr. John Snow, who rejected the popular theory for the source of cholera — disease-carrying miasma — and, with the aid of a local clergyman, meticulously tracked the infection to its source, basically founding the science of modern epidemiology.
Many apt comparisons have been drawn between our current predicament and the flu pandemic of 1918, brilliantly relayed in John M. Barry’s definitive 2004 account, “The Great Influenza.” Barry’s eloquent panorama makes comprehensible both the microbial minutiae and the mind-boggling scope of a tragedy that claimed between 50 and 100 million lives worldwide (estimates are still contested, but adjusted for population growth, that’s somewhere between 200 and 400 million lives today) — before burning itself out for reasons still not fully understood. Most instructively — and hauntingly — for today’s readers, Barry shows how popular prejudice and political folly needlessly stoked the flames of infection.
Younger readers (or anyone seeking a less prolonged exposure to the “Spanish flu”) should check out Albert Marrin’s compelling history of the virus, “Very, Very, Very Dreadful,” or Makkia Lucier’s debut novel “A Death-Struck Year,” in which Portland teenager Cleo sneaks out of quarantine in 1918 to join the American Red Cross, exposing the 17-year-old to nightmarish scenes of affliction and death as she swiftly comes of age amidst a desperate struggle for survival.
For young children seeking some understanding of why everyone is suddenly washing their hands so very, very much, I suggest “Do Not Lick This Book,” written by Idan Ben-Barak and illustrated by Julian Frost. This whimsical tour of all things microbial is led by adorable cartoon critters Min, Rae, Dennis and Jake, aka E. coli, strep, black mold and the diphtheria-causing Corynebacterium. Charming art is enriched with microscopic photography that vividly reveal the invisible world around and inside us, making this the perfect tool for parents eager to arm their kids against the germy world we live in.
A century after Daniel Defoe’s seminal work of epidemic fiction, 1722’s “Journal of the Plague Year,” Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” adroitly imagined our descent into absurd factionalism during the final throes of a cataclysmic plague — before devolving into the ultimate tale of social distancing. Beyond mere viral horror stories, many recent novels thoughtfully explore realities akin to our own. In Mike Chen’s moving and ultimately hopeful post-apocalyptic novel “A Beginning at the End,” six years have passed since a pandemic reduced the world’s population by 70%. Three survivors emerge from grief and isolation onto the streets of San Francisco, and into an uncertain future. Chen’s perceptive and relatable prose is certain to resonate with readers in ways they might not have imagined just a few short weeks ago.
Sarah Pinsker’s “A Song for a New Day” perfectly captures that sense of social alienation perceived by many well before the onset of COVID-19. Luce Cannon is on the verge of music stardom when a terrorist attack shuts down her first big stadium concert. In the years of bombs and weaponized viruses that follow, all public gatherings are canceled and people retreat into closeted virtual lives. Having grown up in this mediated reality, Rosemary takes a new job as a talent scout for virtual concert organizers, sending her out into the thrilling and scary world of direct experience, where Luce and other outlaw musicians play live gigs before rapturous crowds. Chilling and exhilarating, Pinsker’s plausible novel celebrates the communal spirit threatened by our increasingly isolated lives.
Finally, those pragmatic readers who are eager roll up their sleeves and start fixing things will find much food for advocacy and activism in Dr. Jonathan M. Quick and Bronwyn Fryer’s wonky treatise, “The End of Epidemics.” Many books have warned us of the next great pandemic, but few are so intently focused on detailed strategies for how to minimize the damage, next time. A useful map to the road ahead as we navigate scary, uncharted waters now.