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What to read while you’re self-isolating to avoid the coronavirus? How about books about all the various plagues humankind has survived before? There are classics like Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 classic The Decameron, about Italian aristocrats who flee the bubonic plague in Florence, or Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of the Black Death in London half a century before.
There are many more recent works about pandemics, some nonfiction, some historical fiction, some speculative fiction. On March 8, Stephen King resisted comparisons of the current crisis to his 1978 novel The Stand, set in a world where a pandemic has killed 99 percent of the population. King tweeted, “No, coronavirus is NOT like THE STAND. It’s not anywhere near as serious. It’s eminently survivable. Keep calm and take all reasonable precautions.”
Despite King’s protestations, readers often look to books to help explain real-world phenomena, especially in bewildering times like these. Here are a few more plague books to consider.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) by Katherine Ann Porter is a short novel set during the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed five times as many Americans as did World War I. Its main character, Miranda, is a young reporter who falls in love with a soldier; the book’s fever-dream style captures the experience of the disease.
The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton is a bestselling techno-thriller that begins when a military satellite crashes to earth and releases an extraterrestrial organism that kills almost everyone in a nearby small town. Then things get bad.
Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel García Márquez is the great Colombian author’s beguiling tale of a 50-year courtship, in which lovesickness is as debilitating and stubborn as disease.
The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood, which includes Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), is a masterwork of speculative fiction by the author of The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in a near future in which genetic engineering causes a plague that almost destroys humanity, it’s savagely satirical, thrilling and moving.
The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy is a bleak, beautifully written, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set after an unspecified extinction event has wiped out most of humanity. An unnamed man and boy travel on foot toward a southern sea, fending off cannibals and despair.
Nemesis (2010) by Philip Roth is the author’s 31st and last novel, a sorrowful story set in Newark, N.J., in 1944, as the United States is in the grip of the polio epidemic that killed and disabled thousands of children.
Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel is a bestselling novel about a group of actors and musicians traveling through the Great Lakes region in future years after a mysterious pandemic called the Georgian flu has killed almost everyone.
The Old Drift (2019) by Namwalli Serpell is a dazzling debut novel set in Zambia, spanning a century but focusing in part on the disaster wrought in that country by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (1995) by Laurie Garrett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter’s clear-eyed look at how rapidly the modern world has changed the nature of disease, how important preparedness is and how endangered we are without it.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2013) by David Quammen is the great science writer’s fascinating look at zoonotic diseases, such as AIDS and Ebola (and now coronavirus), that jump from animal species to ours.
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