With news of the corona virus outbreak, books about pandemic popping up on reading lists around the globe. With stakes so high, it’s easy to see why writers find outbreaks of disease so compelling. Learning about how we’ve contended with other alarming public health crises may give us hope that we can come through the current corona virus pandemic intact as well.
Here are great fictional and non-fictional books about pandemic, ranging from the historical to the futuristic.
Non-Fiction Books about Pandemic
There are lots of books you could be reading right now, but none are as topical as those on this list. So if you’re looking to get your mind off of COVID-19, pandemics, and the effects of illness on societal structure, maybe these aren’t for you. But if you’re looking for smart, academic takes on the viruses and diseases that changed our world before COVID-19—and where we can go from here—you can’t go wrong with any of these non-fiction books about pandemic.
China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century’s First Great Epidemic by Karl Taro Greenfeld
When I read this book today as the Wuhan corona virus outbreak is in its full swing, it feels that exactly the same event that had recoiled 17 years ago is now unfolding itself all over again. The history is repeating itself.
An infectious disease is evolving into an epidemic in a global scale, by a novel virus of similar structure and function (but different), which jumped to human from wild species found in wet markets. The tragic drama again happens in China, even with same players: sluggish provincial Chinese officials, late but draconian reactions from the central government, outspoken physicians and virologists (Guan Yi and Zhong Nanshan are still around and active), dying patients and the panic public. It’s just too surreal.
It was eerie reading about the 2002 SARS outbreak while another coronavirus is shutting down the world. In many ways it’s sad that so many lessons learned during the SARS crisis went unheeded by the world this time around. This is one of the best non fiction books about pandemic and its brutality.
The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston
The book concerns the discovery of the Ebola virus in western Kenya in 1980 and efforts by the U.S. Army to neutralize it when the virus is discovered in a Reston, Virginia animal facility in November 1989. With a 90% fatality rate and no vaccine, meetings between Ebola virus and human beings proceed along the same lines as Jack the Ripper and his victims. The first half of the book sets up the infant rampages of Ebola in central Africa, documenting its effect on human beings and an averted outbreak in Kinsasha, while the second half of the book details the Army’s hunt when the killer has the audacity to surface in the U.S.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry
John Barry’s account of this virulent flu is sobering to say the least. In a matter of months, the flu spread across the world and caused between 50 and 100 million deaths. More American soldiers died from this flu than from the entire Vietnam War.
Most places have the mortality rate hovered around two percent, but it struck much more fiercely elsewhere. In the Fiji Islands, 14 percent of its population succumbed; in Western Samoa, twenty-two percent; and in Labrador, a third of the population died. And because the disease mainly struck young people—people in their twenties and thirties—thousands were left orphans.
The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby
Fascinating and Very informative book. First, Crosby shows us Memphis before the epidemic – having a fine old time and then a ship comes to port bearing sick sailors from Cuba. Sailors sick with yellow fever (although often misdiagnosed as malaria). The wealthy pretty much leave town. Then we see how those who remain behind get struck down. Some barricade themselves in the house but even they are struck down.
Much dispute as to how people contract yellow fever – through infected clothes, bacteria or a mosquito bite? There was a famous incident during the Civil War when a trunk of infected clothes was sent north hoping to infect the Union lines/leaders that way. Unfortunately, people do not get yellow fever that way. This is one of the most detailed and researched books about pandemic.
Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health by Judith Walzer Leavitt
Typhoid Mary was an Irish immigrant cook named Mary Mallon, who spent decades as a prisoner / guest of the New York Public Health Department. As a healthy carrier, she did not exhibit typhoid symptoms herself, but the disease was transmitted via the food she prepared. Her refusal to seek a different livelihood, and aggressive demeanor toward health officials, resulted in her confinement on North Brother Island, a quarantine location, where she died in 1938.
“Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public Health” is not just a history or biography. Mary Mallon, as a healthy carrier of a deadly disease, has her modern equal in the millions of people who are HIV positive or suffer from drug-resistant tuberculosis. Leavitt raises uncomfortable questions about quarantine practices and examines how past treatment of the afflicted has been based on gender and socio-economic status. Statistics and sociological arguments have a strong presence in each chapter, but they don’t detract from the book’s appeal to the lay reader.
Flu: The Story Of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata
A fascinating book about the 1918 “spanish” flu pandemic that swept the globe, killing an estimated 20 million to more than 100 million people worldwide. The virus was most deadly to adults aged 20 to 40 – a portion of the population not usually as vulnerable to infectious disease. The death toll was so high that in the United States the average life expectancy dropped by 12 years.
The book explores the spread of the virus and the search for it remnants in tissue samples to discover why it was so lethal and if a vaccine can be created against future outbreaks of this particular strain.
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts
Alternately thrilling and harrowing, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic chronicles the epidemic’s early years. The work begins at the height of gay liberation on the bicentennial, a few years before the outbreak of AIDS in America, and ends in 1985 with the announcement of Rock Hudson’s death from the virus.
Along the way Shilts documents medical researchers’ and gay activists’ embattled attempts to understand the virus and curb its spread in the face of public indifference and governmental neglect. The extraordinarily detailed work of social history’s drawn from Shilts’ reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle on the crisis as it unfolded, and the contents are artfully compiled. Individual stories of groundbreaking researchers and persons with AIDS are skillfully developed over the course of the book, which moves at a breakneck pace, and embedded within a multifaceted analysis of gay life in New York and San Francisco.
Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky
Polio by David Oshinsky garnered him a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. It is a highly readable and concise history. The writing style is fluid and the content is very interesting. Although more than a decade old the search for an effective polio vaccine resonates in the midst our the latest Corona Virus scare and potential pandemic.
The story of polio by Oshinsky captured the high stakes profile and the intense terror of this disease in the efforts to find a cure from the March of Dimes and the vaccines by Salk, Sabin and others. It reads like a novel and is fast reading and very enlightening and insightful. It was interesting to get the backstory of how the vaccine came to be and the financial struggles to fund them.
Fiction Books about Pandemic
As the world struggles to come to terms with the growing COVID-19 crisis, many of us are turning to fiction as a way of understanding the scope of the danger—and, perhaps paradoxically, a way of finding comfort. If the last thing you want to think about right now is global epidemic disease, we get that! But novels can also help people wrap their heads around something that may seem too big and scary to process. If you feel like you’re living in the first pages of a post-apocalyptic story, these fiction books about pandemic might help you feel less alone. Pick one up, and then wash your hands.
Severance by Ling Ma
Severance by Link Ma is a very well-balanced novel, seamlessly blending dry wit, apocalyptic end games, and a unique character study. Following a young woman as she travels by caravan from a deserted New York City to the outskirts of Chicago, this book deftly blends different tones from the dark and dreary, to the heartwarming and hilarious. The humor is certainly not for everyone and tends to bend towards the bone dry, but it perfectly matches the main character of Candace, a young Chinese immigrant who apparently seems immune to a fever that has taken out much of the world’s population.
By the novel’s end, we have a full picture of just who we’re dealing with, for better or worse, and the larger picture of how a world after the world’s end might be seen. Bitterly funny, achingly tender, and starkly apocalyptic, Severance is a brilliant offering from a fresh new voice.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
When the zombie apocalypse comes there’ll be a lot of inconveniences. The breakdown of society, lack of electrical power, no hot showers and undead cannibals trying to eat your brains will definitely suck, but I always figured that the trade-off was that at least there’d be no more paying bills, standing in line at the DMV or having to tolerate corporate buzz words and slogans.
But in Zone One not only are there plenty of zombies, there’s still silly bureaucratic rules and paperwork as well as a government more concerned with public perception than in actually accomplishing anything. It’s like the worst of everything.
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
The way it is written, quiet, not much of big dramatic action which is often seen in dystopian novels, it is a quiet although also an emotional report of a drama unfolding in California on a student campus. All of the sudden students go to sleep and don’t wake up. It’s like a spreading virus. The campus and small city is isolated & quarantined and we follow those awake and asleep, sort of personal reports.
This book spans genres, including eerily tense suspense, light science fiction, and dystopian; all on a backdrop of a glorious character study.
They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
It’s the story of an Illinois family who suffers through the 1918 flu epidemic. The first chapter is told from the viewpoint of the 8-year-old son, Bunny, who is an imaginative and anxious little boy. He desperately loves his mother and is afraid of his stern father. Bunny looks up to his older brother, Robert, who is mean and rarely condescends to play with him. The second chapter is from the perspective of 13-year-old Robert, who is a rambunctious but surprisingly earnest child. The final chapter is from the father’s perspective, and it is a study in grief.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
In Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Georgia Flu sweeps across the world, killing most of humanity. St. John-Mandel, using beautiful prose and poignant characterization, follows the lives of various survivors, tracing how their lives intersect in a group of entertainers called the Traveling Symphony.
The thread that connects their stories is Arthur Leander, an aging Hollywood star who – on the same night that the plague began destroying civilization – was trying to reboot his career when he died on stage in Toronto during King Lear. We jump back and forth in time, watching how his life influenced what will happen to our band of survivors. This is one of the best books about pandemic.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
The coronavirus outbreak has naturally drawn comparisons with the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. Everything from the type of disease to the death rate to the section of the population that is vulnerable is different, but since we live in an age where information is transmitted as quickly as any virus, it’s understandable.
Katherine Anne Porter tears down romantic illusions of family, love, and American righteousness in the three short novels of Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The first story, “Old Mortality,” follows Miranda Gray, a character who bears much similarity to Porter herself and appears in a number of other stories, including the title piece of this collection.
Porter does an amazing job capturing the in-and-out phasing of reality during a serious illness. Her descriptions of letting go into death resonate so deeply in me after my own brush.
The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
Story of a small town in the Pacific Northwest during the influenza epidemic of 1916. The founders and inhabitants of the town of Commonwealth decided to quarantine itself in an effort to keep the flu from entering the town.
The quarantine affects many of the people in different ways. During the guarding of the town, Graham, shoots and kills a soldier that tries to enter the town. This deeply affects Phillip, his young fellow guard who has looked up to Graham in the past.
In the end the influenza reaches the town and many of its inhabitants fall victim. Young Phillip is blamed as he let another soldier stay in an outbuilding at the edge of town. In the end the true story of the soldiers is told which is completely different than what everyone had thought. The reason for the flu invading the town, which you will discover, is somewhat predictable but still so very sad.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood is a fabulous and thought provoking novel from Margaret Atwood! And yet another novel from Atwood that I will need to read multiple times! Though the second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, is more a companion novel to Oryx and Crake (Book 1) than a continuation of it.
The lives of the main characters, Ren and Toby, intersect with Jimmy (Snowman) and Glenn (Crake) from Oryx and Crake, but the emphasis in this near-future is definitely on Ren and Toby and their differing perspective on events leading up to and after the global pandemic unleashed on humanity. This book also highlights a green or eco-religious/mystical sect known as God’s Gardeners that was mentioned in the first book, but never explored at any length. This is one of the best fictional books about pandemic.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Rory Power did an amazing job of building this world within a world. Essentially the story is about 3 friends (Hetty, Reese and Byatt) attending the Raxter School for Girls when the school is hit with sudden, unexplained illness requiring quarantine. Soon the girls find themselves cut off from the rest of the world with very little supplies, struggling to survive their illness and fighting for their lives on an island being torn apart by the “Tox”.
Blindness by José Saramago
In Blindness by Jose Saramago, Author tells us the story of a mysterious mass plague of blindness that affects nearly everyone living in an unnamed place in a never specified time and the implications this epidemic has on people’s lives. It all starts inexplicably when a man in his car suddenly starts seeing – or rather stops seeing anything but – a clear white brightness. He’s blind.
Depending upon a stranger’s kindness to be able to go home in safety, we witness what appears to be the first sign of corruption and the first crack in society’s impending breakdown when the infamous volunteer steals the blind man’s car. Unfortunately for him, the white pest follows him and turns him into one of its victims as well. Blindness is one of the spine chilling books about pandemic.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Hig has survived the flu pandemic, although he has lost his wife and everyone he holds dear. He now lives in an airport hangar with his dog Jasper and has an odd relationship/friendship with Bangley, who has survival skills as well as a cache of weapons. Bangley protects their perimeter from marauders and doesn’t hesitate to use his guns. He and Hig are as different as night and day but they need each other.
Hig lives mostly inside his head, out of necessity. He recalls memories of happier days, and he deals with the harsh reality of his current circumstances. A post-apocalyptic book that is grim but not without hope and beauty.