I’ve always believed that those who don’t understand the past are doomed to repeat it, and I think it holds true more now than ever. Living through outbreaks of disease is one of the big parts of the human experience and there is a lot of value in understanding these case studies of how individuals react, and how society changes in response to global pandemics. If you’re like me, and you’ve been desperately trying to figure out what the world will be like in the coming months and years, this is the list for you. Here are some of my favorite nonfiction books about pandemics that can help us understand what is going on in the world right now.
And the Band Played On – Randy Shilts
This book is more a work of investigative journalism that an exhaustive account of the entire HIV outbreak, but still has a lot to offer for an understanding of our current pandemic. Shilts describes how prejudice, government inaction, and concerns over civil liberties all conspire to paralyze the actions of public health officials and provides a powerful illustration of how the political concerns of some quickly turn into the unnecessary deaths of others.
The Great Influenza – John M. Barry
I read horror for fun and this is without a doubt the scariest book I have ever read. Reading it during the first weeks of the pandemic, I was struck by the horrifying similarities to the present and the more I read the more depressing it became. This book covers the 1918-1918 Spanish Flu in the US and follows a group of physician-scientists as they desperately try to contain and understand the disease. This book manages to cover a huge amount of material while still reading like a thriller. Of all the books on this list, I would give this one my highest recommendation.
The Great Mortality – John Kelly
Drawing from a mix of modern scholarship and first-hand accounts, this book presents the Black Death in all its horror. Kelly examines the biology of Yersinia pestis in-depth and also draws on letters and journal entries to humanize the people affected by this tragedy. Even though these accounts were written over 700 years ago, they still evoke the same level of emotion and the effect is utterly devastating.
The Hot Zone — Richard Preston
I read this book in high school and it was one of the reasons I decided to become a doctor. Written in 1994, this book described the then relatively unknown filoviruses (Marburg, Ebola, Etc.) and takes the form of a nonfiction thriller that you will not be able to put down. Some of the information in this book is a little dated, but overall it is well worth the read.
Justinian’s Flea – William Rosen
This book chronicles the Plague of Justinian, an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed as many as 25 million people in the 6th and 7th century, and arguably was a major factor in the decline of the Roman Empire. If you are looking for an example of how a pandemic can utterly change the course of history, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate one than this. The only downside to this book is that only about a third of the text is devoted to the plague and the rest is devoted to the historical context and people of the day—still great if you are a fan of history, but very slow reading if you pick it up to hear about the pandemic.
Spillover — David Quammen
This book examines the phenomenon of Spillover—or the ways that animal infections mutate to become outbreaks of deadly human disease. Writing in 2012, Quammen was uncannily prescient about the dangers of a new Coronavirus causing a pandemic, and though this has already come to pass, this book also serves as a warning about the next pandemic and the need to address the factors that make us more vulnerable like habitat destruction and animal husbandry on an industrial scale.