As of this month, the world has been dealing with COVID-19 for one year. I recently reread Geraldine Brooks’s lovely Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, a coming-of-age tale about one year of a young housemaid’s life during the Great Plague of London.
In fact, I’ve been reading books about epidemics all year.
The Washington Post, in reviewing Year of Wonders, said, “Plague stories remind us that we cannot manage without community,” and I agree. I’ve found myself comforted by such stories, though they might not seem very comforting to some. In such stories—as in all histories—I can see how others have navigated similar situations, I can learn from their failings and triumphs, and I can be reminded that no matter how awful things seem or how much we struggle as individuals, families, and communities, the world keeps turning and life goes on.
If you’re interested in such reading experiences, here are some recommendations.
There are many novels about epidemics—many of them postapocalyptic novels—and you have to wade through a lot of sensationalistic dross to get to the good stuff. But it's there. I very much enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel’s gentle, elegiac Station Eleven, which is about a fictional pandemic that returns the world to a pre-technological, slower way of life. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a cracking adventure and time travel story and a surprisingly moving tale of family and friendship in an English village during the Black Death. Katherine Anne Porter’s spare novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider is based on Porter’s real-life experience of barely surviving the Spanish Flu.
I read more nonfiction than fiction, and there are plenty of fascinating histories on this topic. Some do a wonderful job of focusing on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. These include Barbara Tuchman’s incredibly vivid and detailed A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, John Kelly's sprawling The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, and Albert Marrin’s Very, Very, Very Dreadful: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918.
For stories about how doctors, nurses, and researchers have boldly battled epidemic disease, I hear great things about (but have not yet read) Smallpox: The Death of a Disease: The Inside Story of Eradicating a Worldwide Killer, written by D.A. Henderson, who directed the World Health Organization’s successful eradication drive. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson, is about how a doctor and a minister joined forces to solve the mystery of what causes cholera. Polio: An American Story, by David M. Oshinsky, won the Pulitzer Prize in History; it details not only the effects of polio on American society but the surprisingly controversial and breakneck race to find a vaccine.
There’s a lot of good material on how politics, personalities, and public health can clash, though I haven’t read much of it because I find it too stressful, especially right now! I have, however, read—and very highly recommend, especially to younger people who don’t remember the early days of the AIDS crisis—Randy Shilts’s groundbreaking And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. (While you’re at it, read Tony Kushner’s brilliant and blistering play Angels in America, which takes on many of the same issues.)
And, Dear Reader, I hope you'll consider writing something about what we're living through right now. Someday people will want to read about it, you know.
...who wrote, in The Plague, "What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise."