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What to Read During a Pandemic

Books for those in fear of quarantine.
February 29, 2020
What to Read During a Pandemic
(Digital collage by The Bulwark)

Since we’re all one bad encounter with a sneeze on the subway away from quarantine, here are some recommendations for reading material while you contemplate your fragile mortality. Back in early 2018, in the hallowed pages of the Weekly Standard, the prophetess Alice Lloyd foretold this day would come and helpfully recommended we all revisit Stephen King’s The Stand. In that spirit, here are works that look at humanity and the impact of illness. If you’re looking for books strictly on the nature and history of epidemics, the New York Times has a list of the usual suspects, but if you’re looking for novels, poetry, criticism, and short stories this list is for you: 

  1. On Immunity, Eula Biss (Bonus essay: The Pain Scale)

The O.G. required reading on vaccination that is deeply empathetic. Wash your damn hands and throw this at anyone who you know who hasn’t gotten the flu shot. As the media attention on the coronavirus gets more alarmist, it’s good to keep in perspective that the flu is still the greater present danger and you can do something to protect the vulnerable by helping sustain herd immunity. (Update: This did not age well. Stay home, stop the spread. It is not the flu.) 

  1. La Peste, Albert Camus

Step aside Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, this season’s flavor-of-the-month relevant-allegorical-novel from the 1940s here to explain the ails of our cursed modernity is Camus’s The Plague.

  1. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

When we find ourselves in the inevitable post-apocalyptic hellscape we seem to be well on our way to, we should all hope a “Traveling Symphony”, like the one conjured by Mandel, bands together to keep art alive. The novel follows a roving theater troupe performing Shakespeare for the survivors of a flu that decimates the global population and collapses society as we know it. The thespians remind us that “Survival is Insufficient.”

  1. Autobiography of Death, Kim Hyesoon

“Listen, listen without fear / for it’s the night of you raging like the influenza.” Kim’s poetry collection portrays the cycle of reincarnation, specifically the days right after death when the spirit roams still on earth. Fans of the film Parasite: Kim’s publisher describes these poems as “giv[ing] voice to those who met unjust deaths during Korea’s violent contemporary history.”

  1. After the Plague, T.C. Boyle

To take the edge off, pick up these short stories the New York Times described as “comedy always tensing toward angst.” There’s an especially timely dystopian story about life after an Ebola-like pandemic, but the beauty of short story collections is the medley, like life itself, or a box of chocolates.

  1. Love in a Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez (Bonus: A Journal of a Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe)

Not actually about cholera! Rest assured, the real plague was in our hearts all along. You know that scene in Love, Actually where the kid’s mum has died and Liam Neeson is trying to figure out how to help him grieve? This book is the plague-adjacent equivalent to that little vignette: “What could be worse than the total agony of being in love?” Just with better, Nobel-Prize-in-Literature-winning prose. Takeaway: It could be worse! That viral respiratory infection has NOTHING on heartache.

  1. Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag (Bonus essay: On Being Ill, by Virginia Woolf)

There’s likely to be a lot of blame to go around in the coming months as world leaders grapple with containment and transparency and what at the moment looks like gross lack of preparedness despite the warnings of experts. It’s critical to remember that even the most careful person, the most healthy and conscientious person, can fall victim to the worst-case scenario. While it may be tempting to cling to illusions of control and resort to using metaphorical devices, Sontag offers a good refresher on how to think about the limitations of language in relation to disease.

  1. Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

Since the demographic most at risk for complications from the coronavirus is the elderly, Gawande’s guide to navigating the hard questions you should be asking loved ones in their twilight years is a must-read before it’s too late.

  1. Book of Hours, Kevin Young

While not specifically about illness, Book of Hours tackles grief and hospital stays, but also birth. Guaranteed to wring you out emotionally—like the sad song you listen to on purpose when you’re already sad or a bruise you press into to feel relief.

  1. Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton

This one is included for those of you looking for a book that has a streaming option. It’s a late-’60s science-fiction thriller classic, filled with computer-readout technobabble of a sort that made it seem authentic and terrifying and fun. For all your conspiracy-junkie needs.

  1. The Dog Stars, Peter Heller (Bonus: Children of Men, by P.D. James)

Described by the New Yorker as “Deliverance in an airplane” this novel is set nine years after a pandemic. I am including this instead of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, since everyone’s already read that one and these two share a similar sensibility about what to expect in the aftermath and consequences of an outbreak. NPR put it well: “Contemporary visions of futuristic hell no longer involve an all-powerful Big Brother, but something like its opposite: the barbarian takeover that follows the collapse of centralized power. . . . It is frightening to face up to the apocalypse. It’s perhaps even more frightening when we get past that and start seeing its upside.”

  1. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche

Remember, we all die.

Hannah Yoest

Hannah Yoest is an editor and the art director of The Bulwark.