I was thinking about good books to read during this dreadful time. Some find a deep dive into the reality of it somehow cathartic. Good books about the Black Death in the Middle Ages are Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and Hermann Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund. A great movie about the black death is Ingmar Bergman’s classic “The Seventh Seal.”
Other good literature that relates to pandemics or epidemics is:
- The Plague by Albert Camus: An account of a plague outbreak in Oran, Algiers, in the early part of the 20th century.
- Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter: An account of the Spanish Influenza in 1918. She lived; her husband died.
- The Painted Veil by William Somerset Maugham: An account of a troubled relationship between a doctor and his wife during a cholera outbreak in China. (I think there were actually three movie versions of this).
Some related and very informative non-fiction books that might be useful are:
- Flu: The story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Lolata, 1999: This has some great information about the later “Swine Flu” and “Hong Kong Flu” outbreaks in more recent times and what was done to control them.
- Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease on History by R.S. Bray, 1996: This has great historical data and good scientific information about all kinds of endemic, epidemic and pandemic diseases.
- The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry, 2004. (since updated) This has a great description of how viruses differ from bacteria and the science of of they work (terrifying!) Also great history of the development of the American Medical profession and the political exploitation of national emergencies (also terrifying.) Well worth a look.
Finally, watching current accounts of the medical staff manning the frontlines in New York, I am struck by the size of the PTSD pandemic that will surely follow the virus. In that vein, let me suggest:
Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. Apart from ideas about the therapeutic use of art, it also has really interesting insights into how viewing and using art as therapy can inform critical and aesthetic theory.
If you are just in the mood to get away from things, I can suggest three classic works of science fiction.
Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy. Really mind bending in terms of taking a long view of history.
Frank Herbert’s Dune series. (The fourth book drags a bit, but the series takes off again with a bang in books 5 and 6). This is great stud, religious fanaticism, the politics of scarcity and almost everything.
Doris Lessing’s Shikasta series, also known as Canopus in Argos: Archives. Harder going than the first two, but well worth the effort. You could call it science fiction or speculative fiction or alternative history. It centers around an advanced civilization that is trying hard to help us—in spite of ourselves. It leaves you with a new view of your place in the universe. Not necessarily a bad thing.
I can’t help but mention Mary Stewarts great series on Merlin and King Arthur. A four-book series that starts with The Crystal Cave. Mary Stewart was a great writer—and certainly at her best here.
For something really offbeat, there is a great old Talbot Mundy novel called, Om: The Secret of the Abhor Valley. Mundy is almost forgotten today but he was a popular adventure writer in the early to mid-1900s. This is an Indiana Jones style romp through the India of the British Raj with a lot of metaphysical insights. Mundy’s style takes some getting used to, but if you have a little patience it is great fun. He has created truly memorable characters.