A Reading List for the Pandemic
I am taking a break from reporting on my current research efforts to explore a slightly different topic in this posting. Because I have been reading more books than usual owing to the COVID-19 outbreak, I thought I would offer a list of recommended reading for anyone stuck inside the house with nothing much to do. Most of the recommendations are fiction, but a few non-fiction titles have slipped onto the list. Some entries are so obvious they are clichés. Others are a bit off the beaten path.
Without further ado, in no special order, here is my list of 12 recommended books to read during a pandemic:
1. The Stand, By Stephen King: This is the least surprising entry. After the dozens and dozens of books that the master of horror has written, The Stand remains one of his top two or three most beloved novels—and rightly so. The plot is big and juicy. The characters are well-crafted, many of them over the top, and delightfully so. The story of a disease—nicknamed Captain Trips—that decimates almost everyone on the planet, and the machinations of evil-doers in the aftermath, is classic Stephen King. The chief antagonist, Randall Flagg, is a recurring character in King’s work, also appearing in The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Tower series, among others. The Stand is a long book, but it holds your attention. King once likened himself to the literary equivalent of McDonald’s, and I suppose he is on to something, although perhaps he sells himself short. Millions of people love McDonald’s, and millions love Stephen King. If you have not read it, The Stand is well worth your time. If cracking open this 1,200-page book isn’t your thing, though, you can always watch the 1994 miniseries or, if you are patient, wait for the miniseries reboot, which should be released sometime in 2020.
2. The Plague, by Albert Camus: This 1947 novel, one of Nobel Laureate Albert Camus’s most famous works, tells the story of a mysterious plague that engulfs the Algerian port town of Oran. It begins when rats die, and the disease eventually spreads to humans. Oran’s inhabitants react as one would expect. At first, they deny that anything is wrong. Public officials are slow to react, and when they do, it is largely ineffective. When the disease turns deadly, they close stores and exit the streets, hiding inside their houses. Eventually, the town is quarantined. Medical personnel are in short supply and the necessary equipment is not readily available. Some people chafe at the restrictions and try to break out. Violence erupts. The outbreak inevitably subsides, and life returns to a new normal, but not before the inhabitants of Oran succumb to hysteria. If this scenario sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because human responses to outbreaks of disease are distressingly similar. Camus’s tale has been read as a modern allegory of the human condition. Some commentators have interpreted it as a tale of French resistance to the Nazis during World War II. Others have seen it as an absurdist view of life, an existentialist perspective on human frailty (although Camus rejected the term “existentialist”). The beauty of a classic is that it can be read on multiple levels.
3. The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry: This 2004 history of the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak is must-reading for anyone who wants to understand how and why epidemics arise and spread. Arguably the worst outbreak of disease in history—or modern history, anyway, if we discount the Black Death of the 14th century—the flu eventually killed upwards of 100 million people worldwide. Barry’s book has been criticized for focusing on the United States instead of examining the global effects of the disease, but a strong case can be made that he wanted to study its effects on American health, culture, politics, and life, leaving the worldwide analysis to other authors. The Great Influenza is an eye-opening book, well worth a read if you seek to understand how the last great pandemic disrupted American life a century ago.
4. The End of October, by Lawrence Wright: This is the newest entry on the list, published in 2020. Wright is well known as a non-fiction writer. His classic book about the 9/11 attacks, The Looming Tower, won the Pulitzer Prize. Some excellent non-fiction writers make lousy novelists but, fortunately, Wright is the exception that proves the rule. The End of October is a ripping good yarn about an expert in viruses who tries to stop a pandemic before it engulfs the world. Eerily prescient, the book appeared just in time for the COVID-19 outbreak. The End of October is a potent reminder—as if we needed one! —that we operate on the virus’s timetable, not on ours. One cautionary note: In The End of October, the disease spreads when one devout Muslim travels from Indonesia to his spiritual haji in Mecca and infects hundreds of thousands of his fellow pilgrims. Devoted followers of Islam may be put off by this plot development. I noticed that one reviewer on Amazon.com awarded the book a single star, saying he was offended. The heading was “Muslims read too.” As a non-Muslim, I did not find the passage offensive. In fact, if you want to demonstrate how quickly a disease can spread to millions of people, introducing it into a large population during a spiritual pilgrimage is a clever plot device.
5. The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston: I picked up this 1994 nonfiction thriller at a bookstore in Washington, D.C., after I arrived 30 minutes early for a business meeting and needed to kill some time. The book discusses a variety of diseases that are extremely dangerous to human beings, including filoviruses such as the Ebola virus, the Sudan virus, and the Marburg virus. They are all Biosafety Level 4 viruses, meaning they are highly infectious, have a high mortality rate, and have no effective treatments or cures. The book scared the hell out of me. As I recall, it was the first time that I had heard of the Ebola virus. I described the book to a friend a few weeks later. He laughed and said, “Mike, don’t believe everything you read!” The condescension in that remark infuriated me. “Well,” I told my friend, “it doesn’t matter if you believe in the Ebola virus. The Ebola virus believes in you.”
6. The Andromeda Strain, By Michael Crichton: This 1969 novel put Michael Crichton on the map as a techno-thriller writer. I first encountered the story after it was made into a classic 1971 film by the legendary Hollywood director Robert Wise. I saw the film on television in 1973, when I was 10 years old. My mom and I were living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Florence, South Carolina. One evening the film was on television, I was bored, and so I tuned in. By 2020 standards, it is tame stuff, but in 1973, it scared me badly. A decade or so later, when I was in college, I read the book, which I enjoyed even more than I liked the film. It’s the story of a military satellite that falls to earth near a small southwestern town carrying an unknown, but deadly, virus from outer space. A team of scientists dispatched to study the organism realizes that the microbe clots the blood to such an extent that it crystallizes into a fine powder, killing human beings almost immediately. As the scientists study this heretofore unknown organism, code-named Andromeda, inside an underground scientific bunker, they discover that the rapidly mutating microbe has eroded the rubber sealant on the door, leading to a breach in the containment vessel. The locked-down building is equipped with a self-destruct button when a breach occurs, and so a countdown begins. Unfortunately, the scientists have discovered that Andromeda proliferates when it comes into contact with heat, so the building’s impending destruction will not only kill all the scientists in the building, but it will amplify the spread of the microbe. I will not spoil the ending, but it’s exciting stuff. I recommend that you explore the book and/or the film.
7. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: This 2014 work, a National Book Award finalist, is another of those apocalyptic/dystopian, “a-highly-infectious-disease-wipes-out-most-of-humanity-and-now-the-survivors-are-in-deep-shit” novels, but Emily St. John Mandel’s superior writing turns it into more than just a run-of-the-mill potboiler. Perhaps it could be labeled “literary fiction on steroids.” A virus called the Georgia flu decimates humankind at the beginning of the novel. Years later, an itinerant acting group, the Symphony, travels the land performing Shakespearean plays for survivors. The group encounters a crazy, messianic figure called the Prophet, who kidnaps troupe members to hold them for ransom. The group’s efforts to defeat the Prophet and provide a measure of security for their actors makes for a thrilling read. You think you have it bad with COVID-19, but Station Eleven makes you feel thankful for all that you have.
8. Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank: I was supposed to read this 1959 classic as an assignment for my high school English class, but I have a confession to make. Listen up, Mrs. Gaddy! I did not read it. As I recall, I skimmed the pages just enough to pass the test. Shocking, I know, but teenagers will be teenagers. George Bernard Shaw reputedly said that “youth is wasted on the young.” How true, how true. Too bad, though. I read the novel this year, and it was a terrific read. Alas, Babylon is the story of a small group of men and women that survives a nuclear war. I know it sounds like the worst sort of post-apocalyptic Cold War propaganda, but the characters and situations are much more nuanced and well-developed than you might think. It is extremely well done. Best of all, the book is short, and you can find reasonably priced copies on Amazon.com or check it out for free at your local public library (assuming the library is open). Perhaps it is a good thing that I did not read it at age 17. I got more out of it as an adult than I would have gotten if I had read it 40 years ago.
9. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy: I once assigned the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s classic novel The Road for a graduate seminar I taught on public administration ethics at the University of Georgia. A young lady complained to me later, “why did you make us watch that depressing movie? I feel like I need some serious therapy after that.” It is yet another post-apocalyptic novel, but with a twist. If you know McCarthy’s work, he is a master at highlighting both the depravity of human nature and the choices that define who we are. In this case, a man and his son roam a desolate landscape following some sort of cataclysmic event. The man’s wife has killed herself because she could not stand to live in such a world. The strange, dangerous characters they meet along the road and the horrible choices they must make to survive are chilling. All the while, the boy speaks of “carrying the fire,” his view of ethics and the goodness inherent in humankind. (The concept of “carrying the fire” is why I assigned the film in an ethics class.) The Road is both horrifying and uplifting. The book is extraordinary--it won the Pulitzer Prize--and the 2009 film, starring Viggo Mortensen, is well worth watching, too. If you read the book and/or watch the film, hopefully you won’t feel the way my student did. Then again, if you do feel that way, remember that you were warned.
10. And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts: This deeply disturbing non-fiction book from 1987 details the emergence of a previously unknown virus that appeared to target mostly gay men. For a short time in 1982, the disease was called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), or the gay plague. Because so much stigma existed with respect to homosexuality during the Reagan era, the term ensured that little research money, equipment, and personnel would be devoted to understanding and combating a gay-person’s disease. Some Christian groups even argued that the plague was God’s way of punishing the sin of homosexuality. Finally, medical researchers realized that the virus was present in the blood supply, and others outside of the gay community were affected. The race was on to treat the disease and develop a vaccine. Much of the book is righteously angry and rightly critical of the U.S. government’s belated and lackadaisical efforts to fight the disease that eventually became known as AIDS. Moreover, factional divisions within the medical community and petty turf battles among scientists further delayed the search for effective treatments. With respect to a confused, muddled response in the top echelons of government, the book is reminiscent of the COVID-19 pandemic. In both instances, a less-than-engaged Republican president with marginal intelligence and no interest in matters outside of himself oversaw a tepid federal response to a national, and international, health crisis. If nothing else, And the Band Played On demonstrates the need for intelligence and empathy to fight disease, two qualities missing in both the 1980s and in the current epoch. A film version of the book, with an all-star cast, appeared in 1993.
11. Night of Camp David, by Fletcher Knebel: This 1965 novel is not related to a pandemic, but it still makes for enthralling reading considering the eerie similarity to the current conspiracy theorist occupying the White House. “What would happen if the President of the USA went stark raving mad?” the jacket flap asks the reader. The novel narrates the story of President Mark Hollenbach, who summons Senator Jim MacVeagh to Camp David in the middle of the night. Here is a verbatim plot summary: “There, the president sits in the dark and rants about his enemies, unfurling insane theories about all the people he says are conspiring against him.” The stunned senator listens to this unhinged president pontificate about “the grand, unprecedented plans he has to make America a great world power once again.” If this book doesn’t send a chill up your spine, you are the worst sort of partisan MAGA hack, or you haven’t been paying attention for the past three years.
12. Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes: Okay, this book has absolutely nothing to do with a pandemic. It’s not about a paranoid U.S. president, either. It is about a malignant narcissist, however, and so it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Orange One. In this case, the 2012 novel involves one of the worst malignant narcissists in history—Adolf Hitler. In the summer of 2011, Hitler suddenly wakes up in a vacant lot. He is alive and well. Unfortunately for him, the world has changed in innumerable ways since the death of the Thousand Year Reich in 1945. People of color are everywhere. A woman runs Germany. The Fatherland is unrecognizable. As he moves through society spewing his well-known hate-filled rhetoric, people cannot fathom that this man is the original Führer. They believe him to be a brilliant impersonator. Soon he is a sensation, becoming a YouTube star and landing his own television show. Look Who’s Back shows us that people may come and go, but vitriol and racism are gifts that keep on giving.
Now, if these 12 gems don’t keep you entertained during the pandemic, you had better stick with electronic media. You are not a faithful reader.