Book Review
What to Read in a Pandemic

What to Read in a Pandemic

Nursing Clio editors and writers share their favorite books on disease, social anxiety, and resilience to help you get through COVID-19.

Cassia Roth: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks details a year in the life of an English town during a plague epidemic. Its protagonist, Anna Frith, will take you along on her terrifying, and wondrous, year, where she provides crucial medical and emotional care, often at her own expense. Might sound familiar to many women today. 

Lizzie Reis: Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic by Matt McCarthy, MD is more about resistant bacterial microbes than viral pandemics, but it’s all related! He offers some history on the subject, and we also meet some of his patients with dangerous infections. It’s a powerful read that encourages readers to think about ethical issues as well — like how to enroll patients in research studies, for example.

Emily Contois: Fever by Mary Beth Keane is an accessible historical fiction account of Mary Mallon. While it’s impossible to top Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary, I appreciate how Keane writes in the first person from Mallon’s perspective—especially as a cook, someone who cooked and fed people for her living, unwittingly transmitting the disease as a healthy carrier.

Laura Ansley: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is essential reading for pandemic days—though it won’t be comforting. Moving between the start of an epidemic and when society is rebuilding, I love how the novel emphasizes the importance of culture to society. Even when the world is collapsing, there’s room for Shakespeare and other art.

Molly Brookfield: I second Station Eleven! I read it three years ago as a weird beach read and it’s all I’ve been able to think about over the last week. It spookily captures the practical changes that would come with losing a significant portion of the global population (no more telecommunications, no more motorized vehicles, survivors scavenging for supplies in empty houses), but it doesn’t devolve into gore or extreme violence. It felt strangely realistic to me. 

Eileen Sperry: Like Station Eleven, Severance by Ling Ma is probably not going to make you feel any better about this week. But Ma’s novel is smart dystopian fiction that forces us to think about disaster in the age of capitalism. The novel follows Candace, a 20-something photographer working an entry-level publishing job she sort of hates in Manhattan, through the outbreak of a pandemic originating in China. Darkly funny and insightful. 

Averill Earls: I’m reading The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin now and didn’t know it would include an epidemic thread until … well, until about 10 minutes ago. The Gold children visit a fortune teller in the mid-1970s, and she predicts the exact date of each of their deaths. Two of the siblings, Simon and Klara, run off when she is 18 and he is 16 to San Francisco, where Simon can be himself—gay. By the time he’s 20, the AIDS epidemic takes over San Francisco, killing off all their friends in the Castro. Twenty-five percent in, it’s devastating, but also lovely and sweet. I am pretty sure I know how it ends, but I can’t put it down anyway. 

Evan Sullivan: I am almost done with Philipp Blom’s Nature’s Mutiny. Admittedly, it is primarily about the Little Ice Age, but much of the book also deals with the plague in Europe.

Sarah Swedberg: I agree with Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. And if you really don’t want to feel any better, Billy G. Smith’s Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World. If you do want to feel better in the end, David France’s How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS.

Cassandra Berman: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil is one of my all-time favorite novels. Set in Hong Kong and China in the 1920s during a cholera epidemic, it will not provide comforting escapism, but it does have a lot to say about duty, relationships, and “othering.” There is also a stunning (albeit very different) film adaption from 2006 starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton… should you have more time on your hands to fill.

Jacqueline Antonovich If you are looking for some straight-up History of Medicine content, I would recommend John Barry’s The Great Influenza. It’s a fascinating read about the 1918 flu pandemic that’s written for a popular audience. Another fantastic popular press book is Michael Willrich’s  Pox: An American History, which documents the fight against smallpox. I particularly love this book for its discussion on public health law and the tension between personal liberty and the common good.  You also can’t go wrong with Charles Rosenberg’s classic, The Cholera Years. When I assign this book, I always give my students the following guiding question: Why did cholera pandemics repeatedly occur throughout the 19th century and then disappear by century’s end? In other words, why do historians of medicine categorize cholera as a uniquely 19th-century disease? 

Wash your hands, stay safe, and happy reading, friends.

6 thoughts on “What to Read in a Pandemic

    • Author gravatar

      I heartily recommend Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book. Set in the first days of the plague in Oxford, the story line bounces between near-future and 14th century Oxford. There is humor, pathos, jolting reality checks and just about everything you want from a good page-turner. Oh, and there is some sadness and a heartbreak, too.

    • Author gravatar

      Hello! Here are some recommendations for Latin America. The first two ask the reader to consider how epidemics have been weaponized against indigenous populations for centuries. For a general overview of the effects of smallpox in Latin America, see Noble David Cook’s “Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650.” Its uses demographic data to examine population collapse as well as resilience. Another book that seems to grab students’ attention is Elizabeth Fenn’s “Pox Americana,” which details the sweeping effects of smallpox in North America.

      For cholera, Donald Stevens recently published “Mexico in the Time of Cholera,” which is a great look at how water systems informed disease. For hispanohablantes out there, Lourdes Marquez Morfin has the classic “La desigualdad ante la muerte en la Cd de Mexico: el tifo and el cólera” which details the social inequality that exacerbated epidemics of typhus and choler in the early 19th century.

    • Author gravatar

      That’s where Willis’ book comes in. It is redemptive, in the end, and a very good read getting there. Hope this helps.

    • Author gravatar

      I have just begin Camus’ The Plague. Honestly, the early description of Dr Rieux becoming aware, then becoming alarmed about the dead rats, while other characters dismiss them as pranks or a failure of the sanitary department is freaking me out today.

    • Author gravatar

      Currently reading The Immortalists, am in the thick of the AIDS part and am both sad and enthralled at the same time. Also, I know it’s a young adult book, but Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson is an excellent novelistic interpretation of a young woman living through an urban epidemic.

    • Author gravatar

      Such a great list! Just to clarify, though – cholera epidemics didn’t disappear. We still have them frequently, unfortunately, in sub-Saharan Africa.

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