5 classic books on pandemics to read during the Coronavirus outbreak

Looking for some good books on epidemics and infectious diseases? Here is a list of best novels written on pandemics in English, along with some non-fiction works. You can read these books on epidemics while staying at home because of Coronavirus lockdown to see how the world has fought such diseases in the past.

While the best material defense against the Coronavirus or any other pandemic may be a vaccine, what psychologically helps most is a true knowledge of the scenario. Here are some books on pandemics that will help us know how the world, in fiction and in reality alike, has stood in unison against the epidemic in the past. The first two works are non-fiction, while the following three are novels – but they all exhibit some aspect or other of life in the time of an epidemic. Keep reading!

1. The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

The Cholera Outbreak of 1846-60 was the third major cholera epidemic of the nineteenth century, which originated from colonial India but soon crossed her borders. 1854 was the worst year, and in just Great Britain, the death toll was officially twenty-three thousand. Unofficial numbers could have been much higher. In London, the Broad Street Cholera Outbreak began silently, and hardly anyone took notice before the infections began on a large scale and fatality rates went high. In The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson tells the compelling tale of how the London of 1850s was actually ripened for the outbreak of such an epidemic, given the poor concepts of hygiene, and the scavenging jobs of Victorian England like toshers and night-soil men that were both risky and unhealthy.

2. The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry.

Published in 2005, John M. Barry's prodigal work The Great Influenza was on the list of Amazon's twenty most sold books for successively four weeks (as on the week of April 12, 2020; though it slid from rank 15 to 16 from the previous week). And this phenomenon certainly had a reason. What is worth noting that Barry has not addressed the prolonged pandemic of 1918-1920 as Spanish Flu; it was much more than just Spanish. The Great Influenza was arguably the deadliest pandemic that human history has ever seen – a global affair that infected nearly a third of the world's population at that time, the number nearing 500 million, and killing as many as a hundred million people worldwide. In fact, the cumulative number of fatalities from the Great Influenza in just one year was way more than the infamous Black Death had killed in a hundred years. The book has been a New York Times bestseller, it has been described by the Chicago Tribune as "Monumental".

3. The Plague, by Albert Camus

Originally titled La Peste (1947), this novel by the Algerian Nobel Laureate Albert Camus revolves around a devastating plague in Oran, a city in French Algeria. Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature 10 years after publishing this novel, as the second-youngest recipient of the award in history.

Although the novel is placed in the 1940s, the epidemic described here is not entirely fictional: Oran had actually witnessed several outbreaks of maladies of various degrees throughout its history. The central character of this novel is Dr. Bernard Rieux, who treated the first victim of the plague, and urged the authorities to take necessary steps to prevent the epidemic. Nevertheless, his warnings fell into deaf ears, as the impending danger seemed unreal to everybody else. Does it not sound similar to the beginning days of the Coronavirus spread, when most members of the public, as well as the administration of several countries, actually failed to realize the graveness of the situation? As a medical practitioner, Rieux stays true to his job by combatting the plague. Another character, Jean Tarrou, who came to Oran a few weeks before the outbreak for reasons unknown, and organized volunteering teams and fights the epidemic in his own way, could be a true ideal for what we the common citizens can do to fight the Coronavirus. On the contrary, there are people like Father Paneloux, who regards the plague as a God-sent scourge to penalize the non-believers. Cottard, an eccentric and mistrustful man, changes into an amicable personality after the outbreak of the plague, although at the end he loses his sanity. Raymond Rambert, a foreign journalist trapped in Oran, initially arranges for illegal ways to escape the city and the plague. Nevertheless, after the failure of his initial escape attempts, he identifies himself as someone belonging to Oran, developing a sense of camaraderie with the citizens, and pledging to fight the epidemic alongside everybody else. The novel thus presents a wide cross-section of the society in a fascinating way, recording their responses and reactions to the epidemic – which we can easily relate to the various social classes in our country and abroad during the Coronavirus outbreak.

4. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez

Our introduction to the literature from Latin America is often through the Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, and Love in the Time of Cholera is one of his most notable works. First published in Spanish (as El Amor en los tiempos del cólera, it was translated into English in 1988 by Alfred Knopf, which was an instant success among the Anglophone readers worldwide. Readers will easily be able to relate this novel to the present locked-down situations following the Coronavirus pandemic. Here, the protagonists Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall in love with each other but are forced to be estranged because of Fermina's father Lorenzo. They communicate in their long-distance relationship by the means of telegraph and letters. This is relatable to how we are all locked up at our homes today. However, Fermina breaks off her engagement with Florentino and instead marries a young and accomplished doctor, Juvenal Urbino, who is committed to eradicating cholera from his country. What happens next? You should find out by reading this timeless classic by Márquez, written in the background of an epidemic.

5. Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter

Published in 1939, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is an anthology of three short novellas by the American novelist Katherine Anne Porter, based on the Great Influenza of 1918. The three novellas are named "Old Mortality", "Noon Wine", and "Pale Horse, Pale Rider". The last and the eponymous one, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider", revolves around the relationship between a newspaperwoman, Miranda, and a soldier, Adam, during the Spanish Flu. As the novel progresses, Miranda catches the infections and falls sick. When she recovers, she finds out to her utter grief that Adam has died of the epidemic, who probably caught it while nursing Miranda. The title refers to the Bible (Revelation 6:1-8) where Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is said to be riding a pale horse. The novel's iconic concluding line – "Now there would be time for everything" – is something that we all can perhaps sadly relate to in the time of Coronavirus outbreak.

A bonus list.

If you have read these books already, or crave for 'some more' like Oliver Twist, here is a bonus list for you. If you know about more books on epidemics and deadly maladies, we would love to hear about them in the Comments section below!
  1. A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe, and published in 1722. Although Defoe is most known for Robinson Crusoe, this account of the bubonic plague that swept across London in 1665-1666 is equally interesting to read.
  2. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. This 2003 novel by the famous Canadian novelist sketches the aftermaths of genetic engineering – a sweeping plague that wipes out half the human population. Are we heading towards a situation as grave as that? Well, only time can tell.
  3. The Stand, by Stephen King. Published in 1978, it tells the story of a virus called Captain Trips devastating humanity.
  4. The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Published in 2002, it is an alternate history of the bubonic plague in the fourteenth-century Europe.
  5. The Child Garden, by Geoff Ryman. Now here is hope after the long tunnel for you. Published in 1989, it tells the story of a futuristic society where viruses are used for the benefits of human beings.


Author: Umesh29 Apr 2020 Member Level: Diamond   Points : 2

This is a good compilation and would enrich us to know that similar things had happened in the past also. However, there are subtle differences between those and the present one in the sense that the world is more polluted as well as more populated today and the worst thing is that this virus is the most dreadful as compared to all of the earlier ones.

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