Wondering why anyone would want to read the best books on pandemics and epidemics? One thing that is on everyone’s mind right now is how the global pandemic COVID-19 is affecting people and systems all over the world. Sometimes studying the history of previous similar scenarios through books or movies can be helpful in getting people through such a difficult time. No wonder, the viewership of the movie ‘Contagion’ has significantly increased during the lockdown. If you are looking for books on similar topics, here is our list of best books on pandemics and epidemics that happened throughout the world over the past years. Let these books bring you some hope and faith that the world has gone through and come out strong from similar situations in the past years and that in no time, we will be out of this situation as well.
Influenza by Dr Jeremy Brown
In the year 1918, the pandemic of influenza spread like one no had ever seen before and there are many books written on it. This book by Dr Jeremy Brown does not only talk about the impact of the pandemic but also talks about its origin and various other secrets about it. The book is also filled with anecdotes from people who suffered from influenza at the time. Dr Brown has also discussed the approach of various countries towards dealing with influenza. There are some positive aspects of influenza in the book as well including the early treatment and the scientific resurrection of the virus. Even though the book is written by a professional with experience in dealing with influenza, anyone with an open and active mind can read it to understand more about the 1918 pandemic. The book also raises some vital questions regarding the controversies and the response of the government towards dealing with such situations.
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Yellow fever struck Philadelphia in the late 18th century and this book is a story about a girl and her encounter with the epidemic. Using fiction, the writer Laurie Halse Anderson has explored the various stages of the yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia. Starting with the spreading of rumours in the summer of 1793 about a specific fever to the spreading of the fever itself, the book explores the journey of Polly, a girl who serves guests at Cook Coffeehouse and Mattie Cook, the fourteen-year-old girl child of the family who owns the coffeehouse. The story talks about the struggles of the people for staying alive and how their dreams and wishes change according to the conditions of their surroundings. The words in the book paint quite a lively picture of the destruction and devastation caused by the epidemic and the way the people of Philadelphia dealt with it. Read it if you are looking for a simple, authentic and well-researched book on an epidemic with good writing.
Typhoid Mary by Judith Walzer Leavitt
As the name suggests, this book revolves around the story of Mary Mallon, a girl who was the first one to be identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the typhoid fever. She was an Irish immigrant working as a cook in the US and it is believed that she infected 51 people with typhoid fever, among whom, three people died. The book explores her journey after being suspected to be a carrier of the disease, her resistance to getting tested for typhoid and the treatment she receives from the people surrounding her. The author has very well depicted the conflict between the general safety of the public and Mary’s rights to live freely. Other issues that have been discussed by the author in the book, that hold a great significance in today’s times, include the issue of isolation and quarantine, and the comparison of people and their reaction on being informed about a particular diseased and then restricted to perform day-to-day activities. This book was considered to be a successful pioneer in establishing the relevance of history in framing the modern-day health policies to deal with epidemics and pandemics.
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
True to its name, The Hot Zone is truly a terrifying non-fiction book written by Richard Preston. It is based on the filoviruses which are basically a thread of multiple viruses including the Marburg and Ebola virus. It is one of the best books on pandemics and epidemics which turned into a best-selling novel as it came out. The author has traced the origins and the following incidents related to the spread of this catastrophic and deadly virus, including its symptoms. The virus discussed in the book is very highly contagious and the fatality rate among the people who contract the virus is also very high. In the book, you can also read incidents of a relative of Ebola and Marburg virus, the Reston virus. Reading this book might even give you goosebumps if you are weak-hearted. This book is based on an article that Richard Preston wrote for the New Yorker in 1992. A miniseries based on the book was also produced and aired of National Geographic. The series was also a clear depiction of how sometimes, the reality can be so much more terrifying than any fiction.
Dread by Philip Alcabes
Another non-fiction book in the list of the best books on pandemics and epidemics, this book is very different from the other books written on pandemics. This book explains why, even though humans are far more likely to die from other causes like a car accident or a heart disease, they are still very much afraid, and even fascinated by communicable diseases like viruses. It explains that our fears and anxiety arise not from the virus itself or the rapid spread of the virus, but from the uncertainty brought about by the whole situation. People find viruses more fascinating and scary because of the fear of the unknown. This theory is used in the book to explore the reaction of people in case of the breakout of a deadly virus and the measures people take to protect themselves from it. It also talks about the birth of new enemies and discusses cases of bioterrorism or the isolation of Typhoid Mary. The book deals with the biggest fears of humans that lie in their imaginations in a very fascinating and encapturing manner. It implies how we exchange our freedom for protection from the unknown and the way that societal behaviour and expectations affect an epidemic.
Flu by Gina Kolata
This book is a fascinating true story of one of the most deadly flu outbreaks of the 1918 and the millions of people who died almost overnight because of it. What is even more interesting is that the book also discusses the repercussions of a similar flu outbreak in the times of today and the human loss it would lead to, almost as if predicting our present scenario. The writer of the book, Gina Kolata, is also an acclaimed New York Times reporter. She also discusses the possibility and the ways to prevent a similar outbreak from repeating itself. While reading this book, you can sense that the tone and insights come from a knowledgeable and well-researched person. Despite all the information, scientists all over the world were worried about influenza and were very nervous and scared about another outbreak that could kill the young and the old population alike. One of the reasons for the anxiety was the uncertainly of what exactly happened in 1918 and the origins of the great flu. It would make an interesting read for all of us right now who are in the middle of a lockdown, actually dealing with what this book told us to be worried about.
The Stand by Stephen King
Nothing depicts the extremities of a fatal disease like a well-built fictional story. The plot of this book revolves around an error caused by the Defence Department Laboratory, which led to the development of a particular type of flu sickness. In the book, this sickness was called Captain trips, and because of multiple casual contacts, even millions, only very few selected people are able to survive as most of the earth’s population is destroyed by Captain Trips. The flow of the story is crafted very carefully and intricately by Stephen King. The genre of this fiction is a dark fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic world. It is not only one of the best books on pandemics and epidemics, but also one of the most appreciated works of Stephen king. The book can also be easily divided into stages of an epidemic spread. The best part about this book is how well King has woven together the elements of fiction and the elements of a pandemic. If you find comfort in fiction when the reality around you is uncertain, this book is a good option.
The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby
This book is another account of the second phase of yellow fever in the summer of the year 1878. It is one of those untold stories that shaped the history of America in a major way. Towns, cities, thousands of lives and livelihoods were destroyed by this fever in Memphis. The book deals with the story of the destruction of lives and then follows the resurrection of lives amidst the spread of yellow fever. In addition to a well-described historical reference, this book provides an excruciatingly true representation of the effects of yellow fever and the impact it had on the people affected by it. There is also an account of Africa in the book where, even today, the disease is more prevalent than at any other continent. It also talks about the four men who had a major impact on the medical history of yellow fever because of their battle against the disease and the various breakthroughs that follow. The narration style will suck you into the past, make you revisit the horrifying times with a very compelling story. It is, however, not just a story of the disease itself, but a lot more about the people and nature surrounding the disease.
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
The debut book by the writer Namwali Serpell, ‘Old Drift’ is a highly appreciated novel among critics and readers alike. While it released in the year 2019, the story of this book is set in 1904. It is another one of the rare fiction gems written on the AIDS epidemic. The writer herself is from Zambia and is a teacher at UC Berkeley. The story of the book interweaves the story of three Zambian families across generations with elements that are sci-fi and political at the same time. The characters are compelling and the writing is electric, as described by many reviewers. It is made interesting by introducing multiple characters from the three families and how their lives intertwine as their paths cross. Each character is also given an obvious and visibly unique flaw, which makes the writing more subtle and different from the stories one generally reads. All elements of a good novel are present in the story, the drama being the highlight of it all that holds the group together. Another thing that stands out about this book is that the narrators of the book are a swarm of mosquitoes who are also meanwhile enjoying their ‘drinks’ as they encounter these humans.
Faith, Reason, and the Plague by Carlo Cipolla
Another classic among the best books on pandemics and epidemics, this one is among the oldest accounts of the history of the Black Plague in Italy and is written as an essay. Carlo M. Cipolla has brilliantly recreated the everyday struggle of getting through this epidemic as the Magistry of Public Health is taking the required steps to combat the plague. As the story develops, the battle against the plague takes the form of a battle between science and the power of faith. Other important elements that make for an interesting read of this book include the depth of research done by the writer and the contribution of people in the spread of the disease. You will find yourself amused and engrossed at the same time when you read this book. If you enjoy books that are shrouded in mystery, to the point crisp, and not too lengthy, this is the perfect read for you. Despite the nature of the subject that the book covers, which is very dark, horrifying and scary for most people, the writer has managed to give it a light, optimistic and witty undertone.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One of the most profound, imaginative and romantic stories, ‘Love in the time of cholera’ is one of the best books on pandemics and epidemics. Anything less than that can not even be expected by a Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And again, this one’s a fiction. Even though as the name suggests, it is set in the time of cholera, at its heart, this book is a love story. It is the story of the guy Florentino Ariza and the girl Fermina Daza who are deeply in love with each other. However, Fermina ends up marrying someone else, who is a doctor. Years later, when the doctor dies, they both get together again. It is one of those stories that transcends the barriers of time and patience, and true love finally finds its way. The narration of the book makes the present scenario very well interspersed and synchronised with the past history of the couple. The concepts of love, fidelity, and time itself have been very well explored in the context of each other throughout the story. The story also throws some light on the concept and conventional foundations of marriage and the system of rituals it stands on. Pick this book if you look for love stories in testing times.
The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman (1989)
The Canadian writer Geoff Ryman has a lot to offer in his science fiction book, ‘The Child Garden’. The pandemic that is the centre of this book is that of global warming and genetic modification and engineering in a world where the transfer of knowledge happens through viruses. The characters of the book are very well drawn by the author and will keep you engaged. The story mainly focuses on two characters. Milena, an extraordinary girl with an amazing talent for music and great resistance to viruses, and Rolfa, a polar bear who has been genetically modified. It was only because of the singing and voice of Rolfa that Milena is made aware of the powers that music possesses. It is a futuristic novel written with great imagination and word power. You can easily refer to the writing in the book as deep and rich. This is again verified by the fact that this well-written book won the author two major awards of his lifetime, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Campbell Award in the year 1990. To have written such an imaginatively brilliant book in 1989 sounds sheer crazy, doesn’t it? That is why it has made it to our list of the best books on pandemics and epidemics.
Clearing the Plains by James Daschuk
This one might not be a book that directly talks about a pandemic or epidemic and how it affected the world, but it is one of the most important books in our list of the best books on pandemics and epidemics. With the premise and context of Canada, the book talks about a major role that the politics, climate, and old diseases play in the subjugation of thousands of people. It throws light on how ecology, economy, and politics has caused a disparity between the indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada itself. Various cultural and historical attributes are taken into account while discussing these issues of disparity. Then it also goes on to explain how this disparity has made one group of people more prone to damage caused by diseases. The book is divided into chapters that logically explain the antecedents and includes great examples. This is one of the most brilliantly researched books with pieces of evidence of all kinds, be it historical, archaeological or even anthropological. Because of all the evidence and references, this book has proven to be useful for many scientists and researchers alike. Not only does it provide valuable information for scholars, historians and students, it also provides new insights to policymakers and researchers about the relationship between history and health of the indigenous groups.
The Making of a Tropical Disease by Randall Packard
Malaria is one of the most complex and oldest of diseases in the world and especially in tropical countries. It kills thousands of people worldwide every year and especially in countries with more population and despite all the efforts being taken by the government, it remains to be a deadly issue. The good thing about this book is that it is well organized and clear in its message in just about 300 pages. The book discusses the origins and early history of malaria and follows its movements through Africa and other southern countries of Asia. The conclusion of the book is on a good note as it discusses the efforts being made to roll back this deadly disease. The book has very well discussed the complete history and biography of malaria with complete depth and length in terms of aspects to be discussed.
People often go back to their hobbies when they have a lot of time in hand. They turn to all the books they have wanted to read or things they want to learn. It is normal for a person to look up and read the best books on pandemics and epidemics at a time where they are practising social distancing in the middle of a worldwide lockdown. We might not know when and how we will get through this but we know that we will always have these stories and books to turn to, for comfort. This list includes both fiction and non-fiction books on pandemics and epidemics that have affected the world. Pick the one that interests you the most and make sure to read it indoors and stay safe!