The Great Influenza, by John M Barry, chronicles the cataclysm that was the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic. It follows the efforts of a handful of scientists as they raced to understand the disease that was sweeping across the globe and their desperate quest to develop therapies that could save lives. Barry grippingly captures the horror of the moment through a combination of firsthand accounts, historical documents, and the most up-to-date science of the disease, giving the reader a feeling of dread as they witness the death toll rising and of the dawning desperation that grips the subjects of the book. For the reader, this translates into a building existential terror as you imagine yourself living a century ago and recognize the parallels between the events of the book and the events on the news.
There are several themes in the book that remind the reader of the current pandemic. One of the most striking examples of repeated themes is the conspiracy theorists and disease deniers of 1918 that in the long view of history are fully exposed as indefensible lunatics. Another example is the officials who were sluggish to follow the advice of scientists only to be forced to live with the blood that was on their hands. The book has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in and of itself. Not only has Anthony Fauci repeatedly recommended it to understand the current pandemic, but George Bush’s reading of the book in the early 2000s was one of the key reasons that the US had constructed any substantial infrastructure to respond to a pandemic at all. Furthermore, the book serves to highlight the uncomfortable reality that the COVID-19 pandemic is not the worst-case scenario, and that there are lessons that we have still not learned between 1919 and 2020 that must be learned before the next, inevitable pandemic.