Books on Plagues, Pandemics and Post-apocalyptic Worlds
Pandemic reading is catching, as our world struggles to come to terms with the COVID-19 crisis, many of us are turning to fiction as a way of accepting and, perhaps ironically, a way of finding comfort. If you can bear it, these books will remind you, in a strangely comforting way, of how absurd life can be. Stories about historical and speculative future pandemics might even help you feel less alone. It’s even possible that by reading dystopian, post-apocalyptic, survival books you’ll not only better understand human potential but oftentimes the extent of humankind’s inhumanity. (And heck, to prepare for the zombie apocalypse!). So, pick one up, and then wash your hands with soap – twice!
Ultimate Isolation Best Books to Read while Social Distancing
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1722)
From 1665 to 1666, bubonic plague returned to Britain and devastated the city of London — killing roughly one quarter of its population in the span of 18 months. The plague was of course the bubonic plague or Black Death. Over 50 years later, Daniel Defoe delves into historical fiction penning a journal of a man who lived through the bubonic plague that devastated London. It brings history to life and really does seem like an eyewitness account of the Great Plague. We are nowhere near the kind of situation that gripped the world centuries ago, but it’s extraordinary to hear echoes of that earlier crisis in today’s news headlines.
Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright (2017)
Get Well Soon is actually a textbook about plagues – from the plague, to leprosy, to polio, but also about the “heroes” during pandemic. While our heroes certainly couldn’t stop the pandemics, they certainly tried. The best part is, Wright injects a lot of humour into her writing. Seriously! If you enjoy this book also check out Quackery by Lydia Kang it delves into humanity’s crazy medical history.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
It’s about a worldwide flu pandemic. Mandel’s story is an ultimately hopeful one, focusing on the ways art endures I expected it to be terrifying and depressing, but it also made me feel hope for all of us, and gratitude for the conveniences of life, as well as for nature. It really is a wonderful read.
The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry (2004)
The Great Influenza is a nonfiction history of the 1918 flu epidemic that killed at least 40 million people and infected a quarter of the world population at the time. This is incredibly informative and really scary stuff. I recommend to people who won’t get a flu vaccine.
Fever by Mary Beth Keane (2013)
Fever is excellent historical fiction telling the story of “Typhoid Mary,” the first person identified as a healthy carrier of Typhoid Fever – or a ‘super spreader’, she left a trail of disease wherever she cooked. Although Mary did not suffer from typhoid fever herself, at some unknown point early in her life her body began producing the Salmonella typhi bacterium responsible for the disease. Mary worked as a servant in many households and it happened that dozens of people for whom Mary prepared food became ill and some died. The story raises economic issues of the working class, of civil rights. When is it ok for the state to deprive someone of their freedom?
Plagues and Peoples by William Hardy McNeill (1977)
An entertaining, if depressing, book on how history has been shaped by disease and pathogens. This is a semi nonfiction book that explores the epidemiological history of the world. It describes epidemics in different times and locales and shows how disease made a huge impact on the course of history.
“Disease and parasitism play a pervasive role in all life. A successful search for food on the part of one organism becomes for its host a nasty infection or disease. All animals depend on other living things for food, and human beings are no exception. Problems of finding food and the changing ways human communities have done so are familiar enough in economic histories. The problems of avoiding becoming food for some other organism are less familiar, largely because from very early times human beings have ceased to have much to fear from large-bodied animal predators like lions or wolves. Nevertheless, one can properly think of most human lives as caught in a precarious equilibrium between the microparasitism of disease organisms and the macroparasitism of large-bodied predators, chief among which have been other human beings.”
Originally published in 1977, parts are noticeably antiquated, but it remains an interesting and thought-provoking work. Topics explored include smallpox in Mexico, the bubonic plague in China, the typhoid epidemic in Europe, and the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. The present panic over the Covid-19 are a remnant of deep seated fear that many of us had forgotten about: the history of plagues and how they have impacted society.
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks (2001)
An international bestseller, this work of historical fiction takes place during the 1666 Great Plague that afflicted England in 1666. It’s a story of the Plague in a small community. It was extremely well written and very interesting! It didn’t depress, but actually offers food for thought around all of my blessings during this pandemic that we now all find ourselves in. I recommend it! It is based on the true story of a village which bravely isolated themselves to protect others.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)
Award winning American sci-fi time travelling novel. The narrative switches between the 14th century and 2055 Oxford during an influenza epidemic. In future Oxford, fears grow that the virus causing the epidemic has been transmitted from the past via the time travel.
“Life expectancy in 1300 was thirty-eight years,” he had told her when she first said she wanted to go to the Middle Ages, “and you only lived that long if you survived cholera and smallpox and blood poisoning, and if you didn’t eat rotten meat or drink polluted water or get trampled by a horse. Or get burned at the stake for witchcraft.”
Meanwhile our time travelling hero witnesses The Black Death cutting a swathe through the Middle Ages, just as disease overwhelms the medical staff of the 21st century. There are many parallels between the timelines in the novel and Coronavirus – including the tragic loss of healthcare professionals stricken by the disease. It’s pure escapism, and if you like it there is a series.
Ammonite by Nicola Griffith (1992)
“Are women human?” Griffith’s award-winning novel uses a futuristic epidemic to address questions of gender and society. It’s set in the future, on a planet where a virus has had a significant impact on the travellers sent from Earth to explore it. Science fiction, feminism, what’s not to like?
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts (1987)
AIDS – its spread, the rush to identify it, the inadequate US government response… reads like a novel of today. The book discusses ‘Patient Zero’ of AIDS, a Canadian flight attendant who died in 1984 was linked directly or indirectly with 40 of the first 248 reported cases of AIDS in the United States, and after he was told of his ‘super spreader’ traits, defiantly continued to have unprotected sex. Poignantly, Shilts was tested for HIV while he was writing the book; he died of complications from AIDS in 1994.
Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (2006)
A story about what happens when a virus is manufactured (or mutated) and kills off (presumably) the entire world population, aside from one lucky (unlucky?) woman left in a research station on Antarctica. It’s two parallel stories, one in a place where people go when they die, the other in the “real” world. It seems that after people die, as long as there is someone still alive who remembers them, they go to a sort of midway place, an ever-changing City of the Dead. Engaging characters, both alive and dead, and a quick pace made this easy reading. You’ll be fascinated by the concept of the after death life people lived and how it gradually physically shrunk as those that knew you died.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-1669)
Samuel Pepys was a 17th century diarist recording events and characters in London during the time of the Great Fire. His journals offers an accurate account of life in the 17th century, written by a man who lived through the Great Plague (a.k.a. the bubonic plague), which struck London in 1665.
The diary was published two centuries later, in the 1800s, as an important historical document. The Diary is notorious for its liberal accounts of his sexual liaisons with women across London despite his marriage to Elizabeth St Michel. Also worth a read in The Journal of Mrs. Pepys: Portrait of a Marriage,” a novel based on Pepys’ dairies by Sara George. It was totally delightful. Pepys worried enormously that his wigs might be contaminated by Plague; what if wig-makers were using the hair of those who had perished from the plague? #PoshPeoplesProblems
The Stand by Stephen King (1978)
A flu virus escapes out of a laboratory and devastates America. One of Stephen King’s very best. I think it’s maybe time for a re-read… I enjoyed it, apart from the massive sexism, and I’m glad Coronavirus is not as bad as Captain Trips.
A handful of survivors wander across a state turned into a necropolis. In this nightmare landscape, there begins a huge struggle between good and evil. “Captain Trips” is only the beginning of the nightmarish scenario. It’s also a ridiculously long book that’ll keep you occupied for a while.
The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston (1994)
A little bit of scary reality. The true story of a break out of Ebola in monkeys imported to the US for scientific study and how close it was to a disastrous Ebola breakout in the US. Where truth is always more scary than fiction, if you aren’t terrified of the Ebola virus get this book and read the first chapter!
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
Oryx & Crake is a strange story about a plausible and terrifying dystopian future. This is the first volume in the MaddAdam trilogy and describes a world devastated by the effects of genetic engineering, including a plague that has wiped out much of humanity. A cautionary tale about the unforeseen and terrible places technology could take us all.
Fever by Deon Meyer (2017)
Interesting post-apocalyptic survival story told, through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy. Set in South Africa, Fever is it is fraught endurance story of a coming of age in a post-apocalyptic world.
“We are animals….domesticated, social animals, thin veneer of civilisation. Gentle creatures if the world is fine, if the social conditions are undisturbed and normal. But if you disturb the conditions, then that veneer wears off. Then we go feral, we turn into predators, killers, we hunt in packs. Then we become just like the dogs.”
You’ll want to forget you’ve ever read this book, just so you can enjoy reading it again.
The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)
A beautifully written book and a worthwhile read. La Peste (The Plague) by Albert Camus, is a gorgeous book which can be read in two ways: first, as a metaphor for the horrors of fascism at the time; and second, as a reference to a cholera epidemic in Algeria in 1849.
This is a fascinating read and pretty apt given the events taking place around the world at the moment. This has stuck with me: that we don’t know how we will behave until caught in an awful situation. I had to hide it away at night because it was touching a nerve a little too much!
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)
This is an alternate fiction novel where nearly all of Europe (99.9%) is killed by the Black Death. A fascinating read, especially today. The Years of Rice and Salt, is set in a world that one character describes as “a mutation of the plague, so strong it killed off all its hosts and therefore died itself.” Europe is largely empty for centuries in the world of this novel, causing a very different balance of global power to develop.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter (1939)
Sometimes we all need a good cry. Three short novels collected in one volume which all involve illness and death so if you aren’t in the mood for this then wait until you are but don’t skip it. Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider is set around the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and focuses on a young woman falling in love with a soldier, as both influenza and World War I loom ominously. Coincidentally topical.
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. The premise is around ineffective decontamination processes of space probes and what happens when a pathogen from space lands here. A good read but heavy on the science. This book is just plain scary!
Blindness by José Saramago (1995)
This book is haunting, horrifying and hopeful. In the Nobel Prize–winning book ‘Blindness’ a growing number of people within a city find themselves unable to see. The government’s response is heavy-handed and authoritarian. The epidemic of blindness then sweeps the country. The first victims are quarantined in an empty mental hospital, which is rapidly filled past capacity. Among them is one woman who is not blind, but had claimed to be so as not to be separated from a blinded loved one. The breakdown of civilized behaviour, which happens too quickly, is more horrifying than the blindness itself. Saramango followed it up years later with another novel, Seeing, which dealt with some of the same themes in a very different way. The narrative style is unique, adding to the unsettling story. An incredible story that will stick with me for a long time.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012)
Even in the midst of an apocalypse love can conquer all. It was so intense and so fine you’ll go on to read everything he wrote. The writing style is a tad hard to get into, just let it wash over you and you will sink into it. Quite the love story. Plus it’s got a dog in it!
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)
It was written in 1949 it’s dated with racism and misogyny. However it is eerily accurate about what a major pandemic would look like. In a nutshell it is about a man who survives and starts the new post-apocalyptic generation. Compelling story but a bit slugish.
As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner (2018)
This historical fiction novel takes place in 1918 Philadelphia and tells the story of a family of five devastated by the Spanish flu. I couldn’t put it down. I was absolutely transported to another world reading this book— but it was eerie how familiar that world was. Obviously the Spanish flu was far more deadly than the coronavirus has proven to be, but the way the world was transformed due to the virus back then very much felt like the transformed world we are living in right now. It’s incredible to me that Meissner, who had not lived through that pandemic – nor this one when she wrote the novel— so accurately captured the fear and anxiety of this type of crisis. This book will make you think of the many forgotten lives that the Spanish Flu snuffed out too soon.