Quaran-reads: 8 vital books about pandemics (that aren't coronavirus)
As the coronavirus outbreak continues to prompt more cancellations and further safety measures, and experts advise avoiding large gatherings of people, you may suddenly find yourself staying home with a lot of time on your hands. We've already compiled a list of shows to binge while you're under quarantine, and now we're presenting you with some, shall we say, topical reading suggestions. While there are plenty of great books out there that will help you take your mind off things, these ain't those. But at the very least, they might remind you that while our situation is quite serious, things aren't nearly as dire as they could be. (After all, we haven't reached full-on societal breakdown just yet.) So here are some great pandemic-related reads to help put things in perspective… and to help stave off cabin fever.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel's bestseller has become a modern classic (it was one of EW's top 10 fiction books of the 2010s), bolstered by its elegant storytelling and ingenious post-apocalyptic world-building. Station Eleven (soon to be adapted into an HBO Max miniseries) begins on stage at a Toronto theater, where an A-list actor dies of a heart attack just as a deadly pandemic known as the Georgia Flu spreads around the world, and from there the book weaves between timelines as it unspools his past and the world's future. In that future, a band of actors and musicians called the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland, stopping at settlements to perform Shakespeare and Beethoven for the residents. It's a uniquely touching vision of life after the death of civilization, not only for the way Mandel uses the scraps of our culture (a "museum" preserving laptops and iPhones; a line from Star Trek, "Because survival is insufficient," spray-painted on the Symphony's lead wagon), but for her faith (embodied by that Star Trek line) that art, culture, and an abiding humanity would endure in the wake of such disaster.
And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts
The quintessential book on the 1980s AIDS crisis, And the Band Played On is a gripping, heartbreaking chronicle of the disease's outbreak and the tragically mismanaged response by essentially everyone involved. Author Randy Shilts (who covered AIDS full-time at the San Francisco Chronicle starting in 1982) traces the first several years of the epidemic in almost overwhelming detail, following the virus' steady spread through America's gay communities and the many factors that delayed substantial action to stop it. With a palpable, righteous fury, Shilts argues that governmental apathy (at both the state and federal level), widespread homophobia in the medical community and the media, and numerous other instances of negligence and hubris obstructed a full understanding of HIV for years, leading to thousands of potentially preventable deaths. As AIDS continues to affect millions worldwide, and many works of art (from Philadelphia to Angels in America to Rent) have since commemorated the victims of that initial wave (Shilts himself died of complications from AIDS in 1994), And the Band Played On remains a powerful, sobering account of how we got here.
Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
Pulitzer-winning literary sensation Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) took on the zombie genre with Zone One, though naturally, the book is no World War Z. In Whitehead's world, a virus has decimated the world's population, turning victims into two kinds of undead: typical flesh-eating monsters and "stragglers," who freeze catatonically in some activity they knew in life. Zone One is distinguished, too, by Whitehead's grim humor and meandering plot (if you can call it that), flowing through flashbacks and introspection as we follow everyman zombie-killer Mark Spitz around Manhattan. With echoes of 9/11, the thoughtful novel ponders how society would rebuild itself and maintain order after a disaster of this proportion (hint: it doesn't go very well), and inquires, as the author told EW last year, "How do you take who you were before into the new world, the post-catastrophe life?"
The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston
A haunting work of true-life horror (none other than Stephen King called it "one of the most horrifying things I've ever read"), The Hot Zone takes readers on a riveting journey through the history of Ebola, Marburg virus, and other diseases that have emerged from African rainforests and proved devastating to humans (including HIV). This book is not for the squeamish; Preston describes the viruses' bodily effects in gruesome detail, with a flair for keenly observed images and chillingly worded prose. (One virus "did not know what humans are; or perhaps you could say that it knew only too well what humans are: it knew that humans are meat.") Adapted (unofficially) as the 1995 film Outbreak and, later, as a 2019 miniseries, The Hot Zone has proven an enduring medical thriller, and a terrifying reminder of the horrors out there, lying in wait for humans to discover.
The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd
Peng Shepherd's gorgeous 2018 debut novel, The Book of M, centers around a far more fantastical plague: known as the Forgetting, the mysterious illness causes a victim's shadow to disappear, and with it, all the person's memories. The book follows Ory and Max, a married couple who have taken refuge in a secluded, abandoned hotel — until Max's shadow disappears too. To protect her husband, Max runs away, but Ory sets out after her, heading into a dangerous landscape filled with bizarre magic (the "shadowless" can reshape the world through their misremembered memories — giving a deer wings instead of antlers, for instance), murderous bandits, a sinister cult, and more. Outlandish as its world may be, The Book of M is a thoughtful, emotional look at the experience of losing a loved one to illness and memory loss — and that outlandish world is one of the best and most fully realized of recent fiction.
The American Plague, by Molly Caldwell Crosby
Yellow fever may seem a distant concern to most Americans these days, but in 1878, an outbreak struck the U.S., killing 20,000 people in and around Memphis — more than the Chicago fire, the San Francisco earthquake, and the Johnstown flood combined, as Molly Caldwell Crosby notes in The American Plague. The book chronicles this very particular moment in American history, tracking the outbreak before shifting gears to follow a group of scientists to Cuba, where they attempt to prove the disease's true origin: mosquitos. Crosby has a talent for memorable imagery ("Dust floated, effulgent, in the shafts of afternoon light, and the air was heavy as steam....His eyes sank deep into his cheekbones ringed by bruised half moons."), and the somewhat obscure story is fascinating material, even as its portrait of powerful officials' apathy may hit a bit close to home. (Then-President Rutherford B. Hayes dismissed victims' pleas for help as "greatly exaggerated"; sound familiar?)
The Last Man, by Mary Shelley
Widely considered the first modern apocalyptic novel, Mary Shelley's The Last Man pioneered many of the tropes we find in the genre today, from global pandemics to doomsday cults. But the book is also much more: a meditation on the failures of Romanticism, a critique of human ambition's futility (in a fascinating contrast to Shelley's best-known work, Frankenstein), and arguably the author's most personal work. Set in the late 21st century (about 25o years from the time it was written), The Last Man follows Englishman Lionel Verney on his way to becoming the title character, as a plague ravages the world population and his friends fall victim to tragedy, eventually leaving Lionel completely alone. The novel reflects Shelley's grief over the deaths of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her friend Lord Byron, with principal characters based on both men (who die in much the same ways as their real-life counterparts). Its grimness alienated 19th-century readers, and the book faced harsh reviews and poor sales upon publication. But more than a century later, as fears of nuclear annihilation loomed ever larger, The Last Man achieved new popularity and acclaim, a testament not only to our apocalyptic fears but to Shelley's bold and affecting vision of life in the end times.
Flu, by Gina Kolata
The coronavirus outbreak has prompted many a comparison to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, thought to be the deadliest epidemic in human history. Emerging in the wake of World War I, the flu killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, and for decades, scientists had no idea where the ultra-deadly virus came from, not to mention if or when it might return. Flu, by New York Times reporter Gina Kolata, is presented as a detective story, following disease experts' quest to track down and study the virus. It's an engrossing narrative, helped along by Kolata's engaging writing, with numerous twists and turns along the way: At one point, many flu researchers leave the project to tackle HIV instead, believing it will be an easier job. Published in 1999, Flu stops a bit short of a full resolution (the virus was still being genetically mapped at the time), but is a nonetheless enlightening look into how science tackles epidemics — and how solutions to medical mysteries can elude us even now.