Understanding Pandemics: A Reading List for Travelers
”All it required was a mango or water apple tree, laden with ripe fruit, overhanging a pigsty. An infected bat feeds on a water apple, discarding the pulp, which is besmeared with virus; the pulp drops down among the pigs; one pig snarfs it up and gets a good dose of virus; the virus replicates in that pig and passes to others; soon the whole herd is infected and human handlers begin to fall sick.” (Spillover, 2012)
Why did this pandemic begin?
Why were we so unprepared?
When is it going to end?
What’s going to happen to the world after it ends? Will the world be better? Worse? Or the same?
I’m sure that questions like these have run through your brain at least once during this pandemic.
By looking at the history of how other viruses have spread, we can make sense of how COVID19 happened. By reading about past pandemics, we can predict how and when they’ll end and what will happen afterward.
In this post, I’ve come up with a list of my favorite books on the science behind viruses, the history of past pandemics, and novels set during past and imaginary pandemics.
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Books about Viruses
Don’t be turned off by the fact that these four books on viruses are nonfiction. They read more like thrillers than anything else, and in my opinion, they’ll keep you up at night as much as a Stephen King novel would. Instead of worrying about what’s under your bed, you’ll worry about the last person who touched the pole on the subway or the shopping cart in the supermarket. Just as scary as a horror story!
By Richard Preston (1994)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“A hot virus from the rain forest lives within a twenty-four-hour plane flight from every city on earth. All of the earth’s cities are connected by a web of airline routes. The web is a network. Once a virus this the net, it can shoot anywhere in a day—Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, wherever planes fly. Charles Monet and the life form inside him had entered the net.”
I first became obsessed with viruses at the height of the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014. The first book I read in order to understand what was going on was The Hot Zone by Richard Preston.
You know the saying, “truth is scarier than fiction”? THAT is the Ebola virus or at least how Richard Preston portrayed the virus.
This book will keep you up late at night both because it’s so riveting and because it’s so true. Preston writes with such drama, suspense, and graphic detail (albeit exaggerated detail, which I’ll talk about later) that he turns what could be dry science into an unputdownable thriller.
The Hot Zone is about viral hemorrhagic fevers, particularly the Marburg and Ebola viruses. The book is divided into four sections.
In the first part, Preston tells the story in exquisite detail of Charles Monet, a Frenchman living in Kenya, who contracts the Marburg virus (even more lethal than Ebola) and then infects others. This section also tells the story of a possible Ebola infection in a research laboratory in the United States.
The second and third sections describe an outbreak of a deadly virus in a shipment of monkeys in a laboratory in Reston, Virginia.
The final section is about Preston’s visit to the cave where Charles Monet may have contracted the Marburg virus.
Before deciding whether to read this book, you should know that it’s gotten a lot of criticism from experts saying that Preston sensationalized the Ebola symptoms.
Regardless of whether the symptoms are a bit exaggerated, The Hot Zone is one of the most accessible books to read about viruses.
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By Laurie Garrett (1994)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Science really suffers from bureaucracy, “Arita would later declare, adding, “If we hadn’t broken every single WHO rule many times over, we would never have defeated smallpox. Never.”
The moment I finished reading The Hot Zone, I went to Amazon and bought The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. I love this book! Garrett didn’t sensationalize viruses as Preston did, but why would she need to since these viruses are scary in and of themselves.
The Coming Plague covers more than just Ebola. You’ll learn about Bolivian Hemorrhagic Fever, Marburg Virus, Lassa Fever, swine flu, AIDS (fascinating), and so on.
Garrett also looks at how new diseases have emerged and spread, since 1945, what conditions cause new diseases to emerge, what causes epidemics, and what actions need to be taken to prevent the emergence and spread of new diseases (we’re more than a little late there).
Even though the book was written in 1994, The Coming Plague is a must-read book for travelers interested in different viruses around the world.
If you’re as an obsessive reader as I am about COVID19, you might have read Frank Bruni’s piece on Laurie Garrett in the New York Times where she says that it’s going to take at least three years to stop the pandemic. Three years! The more optimistic and more delusional people I speak with or hear from online think COVID19 will go away by September and the more pessimistic by 2021. Can the world handle three years of this?
By David Quammen (2012)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
”A zoonosis is an animal infection transmissible to humans. There are more such diseases than you might expect. AIDS is one. Influenza is a whole category of others. Pondering them as a group tends to reaffirm the old Darwinian truth (the darkest of his truths, well known and persistently forgotten) that humanity is a kind of animal, inextricably connected with other animals: in origin and in descent, in sickness and in health. Pondering them individually provides a salubrious reminder that everything, including pestilence, comes from somewhere.
I read Spillover in February 2020, trying to recover from a cough, fatigue, and breathing difficulties (sound familiar?). Not the lightest reading I can assure you, but one that helped me understand more than any other book what the heck was going on in the world. I love this book as much I do the previous two books I talked about.
Published in 2012, Spillover is the most relevant book on this list. It is also the book that I most recommend to people who try to spread conspiracy theories about where COVID19 came from because once you read Spillover, you’ll understand that the coronavirus emerging from nature isn’t so farfetched. It’s just that so far these past viruses haven’t moved from human to human or they weren’t as contagious as COVID19 is.
Quammen’s book is very similar to The Coming Plague in that it also covers the history and science behind many of the world’s viruses. The big difference is that he ONLY describes zoonotic diseases, “an animal infection transmissible to humans.” Plus, his was written 17 years after Garrets so it covers more recent new viruses like SARS and it gives more up-to-date information on AIDS.
Each chapter (mostly) covers a different coronavirus: Hendra (Australia, 1994), Ebola (the 1970s to now), SARS (China, 2003), Q Fever (Australia, 1933; Netherlands, 2007-2009), Lyme Disease (the United States, 1970s), Parrot Fever (France, 1892), Nipah (Malaysia, 1998; Bangladesh, 2001), and AIDS (1970s and 80s). What I find so fascinating here is that they all emerge in a different part of the world. Your country could be the next origin of a disease that turns into a pandemic.
Some chapters become really dense and scientific as he explores the theories behind infectious diseases. The good thing is that you don’t have to read each chapter in order. I skipped around from the beginning chapters to the end chapters on AIDS and then back to the more scientific chapters. But mostly the writing is like Preston’s and Garrett’s. It’s thrilling and suspenseful.
The best chapter by far in the book is the one on AIDS. It goes into great detail on the origin of the disease and the different theories on how HIV spread throughout Africa and how it then jumped to North America.
Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History and of the Outbreaks to Come
By Richard Preston (2019)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“It is to say that history turns on unnoticed things. Small, hidden events can have ripple effects, and the ripples can grow. A child touches a bat…a woman riding on a bus bumps against someone who isn’t feeling well…an email gets buried…a patient isn’t found…and suddenly the future arrives.”
I found Crisis in the Red Zone to be the least scientific and more human-focused book on this list of books about viruses.
Like The Hot Zone, Crisis in the Red Zone is by Richard Preston and is also about the Ebola virus, but in this one, he focuses on what happened in West Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea) in 2013 and 2014. There are some flashbacks to the virus’s emergence in 1975 as well.
Preston doesn’t cover as much of the science as Garrett and Quammen do; instead, he focuses on the people involved in the crisis: the doctors, nurses, aid workers, family members, and researchers who were trying to stop the spread of this deadly disease.
I think Preston felt a bit guilty after being so heavily chastised by the scientific community over his exaggerations because Crisis in the Red Zone is less sensationalized. STILL, his writing is as dramatic and suspenseful as it was in The Hot Zone. It reads like a thriller with good guys, bad guys, heroes, and heroines.
Preston has also completely shattered my once high opinion of Doctors Without Borders. Read it to find out what this aid organization is really like!
Books about Pandemics
For many travelers and travel bloggers, the biggest question is when this pandemic will end so we can all travel again. Many people had trips planned for 2020 and they’re wondering when they should reschedule them. Those in the tourism industry are wondering when their businesses and their careers are going to return to normal. It’s frustrating and stressful. I found some answers to these questions from reading about what happened during our last pandemic, the Spanish Flu. Here are four of the most popular books on the Pandemic of 1918-1920.
By John M. Barry (2004)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“You don’t manage the truth. You tell the truth.”
If you’re feeling anxious about the coronavirus, read The Great Influenza by John Barry. I think it will help ease your anxiety by giving you some idea of what will happen next and how long the virus will last.
Of the two books I’ve read about the Pandemic of 1918, The Great Influenza is the better book. Barry analyzes actions and events and draws conclusions about why the pandemic spread across the United States and why it killed so many Americans. He opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn’t know about American history.
I like how his book goes beyond the scope of the virus and also includes the history of health care and training of doctors in the U.S., Woodrow Wilson’s policies to restrict the freedom of expression during World War I, and the science of viruses.
You’ll also find out how the government and media approached the virus. Were they as incompetent as they are now? Did the media downplay the pandemic as some have done now? Very fascinating!
Although the virus hit nearly every country. The Great Influenza ONLY covers what happened in the United States. I think this was a smart move because in this way he could go into more depth on the politics and science of the time.
The end of The Great Influenza talks about whether particular measures will help in handling a future influenza pandemic (we’re here now). What he had to say about closing borders is prescient and what he had to say about actually getting a vaccine to people (if one can even be invented) is eye-opening. I won’t give more away. You’ll have to read it.
I have had so many questions about the coronavirus since it started. How long will it last? How will cities that opened up so early be impacted? Will the BLM protests cause massive outbreaks like the parades in Baltimore did? Barry’s book gives some possible answers to these questions, and that’s what I liked most about it.
By Catharine Arnold (2018)
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
“Medical science had little to offer in the way of prevention or cure, apart from the process of disinfection, notification and isolation as recommended by Dr Niven. There was little consensus on treatment apart from the traditional recourse to bed rest, opiates and folk remedies, while to make matters worse, significant individuals refused to take the threat of Spanish flu seriously.”
Why do we study history? I believe that in order to understand the present and predict the future, you need to know the past. That is why I chose since the beginning of April to read as much as I could on the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920. The second book I read was Pandemic 1918 by Catharine Arnold.
While Barry’s book (reviewed above) analyzes what happened and tries to draw conclusions between the response of the flu pandemic and politics and science, Arnold’s is a straightforward chronological account of what happened around the world.
There are aspects of Pandemic 1918 that were better done than The Great Influenza. For one thing, Arnold’s writing had a nice flow to it, while Barry’s writing was choppy. Her paragraphs were perfectly structured with the main idea right at the beginning followed by the supporting points. This style made it easy to read, and I was able to finish the book in two days. It also made it easy to skip chunks of text as long as you got the main point, which was nicely stated at the beginning.
Skipping parts of the book really helped because this book was boooorrrrriiiinnnnnggggg. There was page after page of lists of people who got sick or died. The blurb on Amazon said that the book is an oral history of the pandemic with personal accounts from people who experienced it. I thought this would be interesting. It wasn’t after a while. It just got repetitive.
That being said, Arnold’s book is a decent complement to Barry’s book. While Barry’s is heavier on analysis and less chronological, Arnold’s makes the chronology of events clearer. But if you only had time to read one book about the flu pandemic of 1918, I’d choose Barry’s.
By Laura Spinner (2107)
I own Pale Rider by Laura Spinner, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m going to pick it up again soon because I think it will tell me something about what is happening with the BLM protests that are sweeping America and some countries in Europe and Australia.
Spinner connects the Pandemic of 1918 – 1920 to social unrest and political events that took place later in history. I find this idea intriguing, and I’m eager to read her take on history.
Here is the blurb from Amazon:
As socially significant as both world wars, the Spanish flu dramatically disrupted — and often permanently altered — global politics, race relations and family structures, while spurring innovation in medicine, religion and the arts. It was partly responsible, Spinney argues, for pushing India to independence, South Africa to apartheid, and Switzerland to the brink of civil war. It also created the true “lost generation.”
The title is taken from Katharine Anne Porter’s book, Pale Horse Pale Rider, based on her own experience contracting the flu in 1918.
By Alfred C. Crosby (1990)
America’s Forgotten Pandemic by Alfred Crosby is the forerunner to all the other books on here about 1918-1920 Pandemic. This book is the one the others often cite.
Crosby gives an account of what happened in the United States and Europe. Then he goes further and writes about the impact the pandemic had on later world events.
I cannot say whether the book is any good or not. It’s much more expensive than any of the other books on the same topic. Reviews have been mixed saying that Crosby gives you the facts but doesn’t draw any conclusions.
Fiction Books about Pandemics and Plagues
I love books about post-apocalyptic worlds that have been destroyed by a virus. They spark my imagination and frighten me to death. I was a big fan of The Walking Dead for several years (before it got repetitive) even though I dislike horror movies and TV shows.
Why read novels about pandemics when we’re in the middle of one? Sometimes novels can help us make sense of what we ourselves are experiencing. Great writers can put into words what we ourselves have a difficult time expressing. Novels can also help people who haven’t yet been personally hit by a tragedy feel empathy toward people who have because great writers can transport us into the world of their characters. And like reading books about the Pandemic of 1918, novels about imaginary or historic pandemics can help us predict what is going to happen to us next.
By Jose Saramago (1998)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“We are so afraid of the idea of having to die… that we always try to find excuses for the dead, as if we were asking beforehand to be excused when it is our turn…”
I read Blindness by Jose Saramago several years ago. Loved the book. It’s about a city hit by an epidemic of blindness. The people who are infected are put into an unused mental hospital where a group of criminals takes over raping, stealing, and assaulting the patients. There is one person left who can still see, a doctor’s wife, but she doesn’t let her captures know because she fears. The story reminds me of the tv show, The Walking Dead.
I love post-apocalyptic stories, and I found this one to be especially compelling. One thing it’s about going blind, which scares me like no other infliction. And two, it’s about an epidemic, which as I’ve mentioned before, fascinates and terrifies me.
Dystopian novels always make me imagine what would happen in my own country. I can see the country being taken over by right-wing militias with their stockpiles of guns. Everyone is at the mercy of some demented redneck racist survivalist.
Blindness is a great book about what would happen if we were hit by a pandemic more deadly and more contagious than COVID19.
By Albert Camus (1947)
I tried to get The Plague through my local library, but the waitlist is longer than I could stand, so I broke down and bought the book. I have yet to read it, though! To be honest, I had to put some of these books about pandemics away for a while and read something more lighthearted (see my post about books about Korea).
The Plague is a classic French novel written by Albert Camus about a plague that hit the Algerian coastal town of Oran. At first, when doctors suspect a plague is emerging in the town, officials dismiss their worries (sound familiar?). Officials downplay the disease and then squabble over how to deal with it (this is way too familiar). Eventually, the plague sweeps through the town.
Reading the synopsis of The Plague now during our own pandemic, the one thing that struck me was how believable Camus’s story is. I am really eager to read this one and will update this post once I do.
By Katherine Anne Porter (1939)
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
One of the countless things that has surprised me about the pandemic is how little space history books and novels have devoted to the 1918-1920 Flu Pandemic especially considering over a million people died. In history books, I’ve never even seen the 1918 Pandemic mentioned other than as an afterthought when discussing supposedly more important events like World War I or the Russian Revolution.
Before this year, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with one novel set during the Flu Pandemic of 1918.
So, I wonder in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years later, when we read history books about this time, whether historians will devote more than a sentence to our current crisis or whether novelists will use it as a backdrop in their novels.
There is one novel that I’ve been able to find that uses the Flu Pandemic of 1918 as the setting to its story. Written by Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse Pale Rider is actually three novellas in one book. The third novella is the one that deals with the Spanish Flu.
The main character, Miranda, is a drama critic in Denver, Colorado. She falls in love with a soldier, Adam, who is about to be shipped out to Europe. But then she falls ill to the Spanish Flu. Adam cares for her until she is admitted to a hospital.
The story is less than 100 pages so it’s not going to take too much of your time to read.
If you read it, do so after reading Barry’s book, The Great Influenza, so that you’ll have some background for when she talks about war bonds and war propaganda.
However, get it from your library. It’s not that good of a story. Although I liked the main character, I had a hard time getting into Pale Horse Pale Rider. Its’ kind of boring and the writing is quite dated. The only reason I’d suggest reading it is for further understanding of the war and the flu. It’s a nice complement to Barry’s book but it’s not worth spending money on.
By Geraldine Brooks (2001)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Why would I marry? I’m not made to be any man’s chattel. I have my work, which I love. I have my home – it is not much, I grant, yet sufficient for my shelter. But more than these, I have something very few women can claim: my freedom. I will not lightly surrender it.”
The historical novel, Year of Wonders is based on a true story about the bubonic plague that hit the English village of Eyam in 1666. The leaders of the village decide to cut themselves off from the rest of England by quarantining the village.
The main character and narrator of the story is the brave and resilient widow, Anna, who seems to take on superhuman qualities. She tends to the sick and dying. She tries to make sense of what is happening to the people of her village. Is it biology or is it the work of the devil?
I think this book is relevant for today in that it represents the ways people try to understand this virus. For some of my friends, they look to biology for answers. But for others around me, they profess that our fate is in god’s hands and it doesn’t matter whether we wear masks and social distance or not. Even some see it as manufactured by the Chinese government or pharmaceutical companies to take over the world.
I read Year of Wonders several years ago, and I remember liking most of the book very much. I liked the character, Anna, and reading about the plague of 1666 was very engrossing. Brook’s is a really good writer.
My only quibble with the book is that I wasn’t fond of the ending.
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You’re probably not going to read every one of these books about viruses and pandemics. Of course, if you do, that’s great. But for those of you who just want to read one or two or three, I’d suggest picking one from each of the categories: books about viruses, books about the Pandemic of 1918, and novels about pandemics.
For books about viruses, it’s really too hard to choose. I guess I’d go for Spillover because it’s more recent. I’d also buy the book rather than borrow it because it’s one that is so relevant to your own health and well-being.
But you can’t go wrong with the other three. Preston’s books are quick reads, and you can often find them discounted.
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- Understanding Pandemics: A Reading List for Travelers