On Plagues and Pandemics


The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly

When the bubonic plague hit the 14th century, it hit hard. In 5 years, it killed an estimated 25 million. By the time it swept away, the world would never be the same. New political, commercial, and social arrangements changed everything. Kelly’s sweeping narrative history is readable and thorough, and gives you the big picture, with enough small detail to enliven and humanize this story of almost unimaginable tragedy.


A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe  AND the plague sections from the Diary of Samuel Pepys

Daniel Defoe was only a child when the Great Plague hit London in 1665, so his famed Journal of the Plague Year is not really a journal. It’s a combination of journalistic research, childhood remembrance, and local gossip about the plague years. It’s also a terrifying and un-put-down-able read. Pair it with the plague excerpts from Samuel Pepys’s journal, which are much more reliable resports. Pepys was an adult at the time of the plague and recorded its race through London in his daily diary with a combination of resignation, fear, and astonishment. I think it’s some of the best writing that we have about this plague if you want to understand the lived experience of those who went through it.


The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

Ghost Map is a must read for anyone interested in the true story of a plucky and brilliant outsider standing up to the medical establishment. It’s also the beginning of the story of modern epidemiology. It’s non-fiction, but reads like a novel–with suspense, mystery, and drama to spare. This is also a great book for anyone interested in the history of cities, or urban poverty.


Pox: An American History (Penguin History of American Life) by Michael Willrich

Pox is the story of the smallpox epidemic in the United States at the beginning of the Progressive era. It’s also the story of one of the first big American governmental public health measures, the beginning of required vaccinations, and the beginning of the antivax movement. It is, in other words, the story of the start of nearly every public health debate that American are having now. I like this book so much because it pulls no punches. The smallpox epidemic was deadly and real. The vaccine worked. And yet, the government measures taken to make sure the population received the vaccine would give anyone–not just libertarians–pause.


The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry

Buy this book in multiples. Hand it to anyone who says “It’s just the flu.” Remind them that the unspeakable violence of WWI killed about 16 million people. The flu killed 50 million. 



Books to Make you Feel Better

My Man Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

PG Wodehouse is my go-to author when the world seems to be falling apart. His world, by contrast,  is one where the miraculous butler Jeeves shimmers into rooms bearing perfectly timed cocktails and hangover cures as needed, makes sure one is never irresponsibly clad, and solves all one’s problems with clever schemes. Every Jeeves and Wooster story is the same. Hapless aristocrat Bertie Wooster gets into some sort of pickle (usually an engagement to a woman he doesn’t much like) and Jeeves extricates him from it. It’s how Wodehouse gets his characters from point A to point B that’s the fun of it all. Eminently quotable, endlessly joyful, and funny as hell, there are few things that a dose of Jeeves and Wooster can’t help fix.


The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker won’t necessarily cheer you up, but she’ll make you laugh about how miserable you are. Her short stories are masterpieces of sly observation and snarky dialogue. Her poems pack a solid right hook at the end. And her theater and book reviews are some of the most masterful takedowns in critical history. Get the largest, most varied collection you can find and dig in. You could do worse than start with the short stories “Arrangement in Black and White” or “The Waltz,” and everyone should read her review of House at Pooh Corner. 


Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Sometimes you just need to get off planet, fast. This book will give you instructions on how to do that. It will also introduce you to the wonders of Vogon poetry, tell you what it’s like to drink a Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, and generally distract you from everything else around you for a while. This is a great one to read aloud to the people stuck in quarantine with you.


Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint

De Lint’s luminous stories and novels, the best of which are set in the fictional Canadian city of Newford (which is exactly like Ottawa, except when it’s not) are all about finding light in dark times. They aren’t cute or twee. They are warm-hearted, with a deep belief that we can all be better than we are, and that the magic of every day is worth trusting. 


How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher

No one writes about food as well as MFK Fisher. This particular collection of her food writing comes out of the food shortages from WW2 and her attempts to deal with them as a home cook. But Fisher’s book isn’t just an intriguing collection of historical recipes. It’s a book about holding on to what we love and what makes us human when times are dangerous, resources are scarce, and good times seem very far away. How to Cook a Wolf also contains one of my favorites sentences of all time. “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.” If that makes you want more MFK Fisher, you can find How to Cook a Wolf contained with 4 other books in the collection The Art of Eating.




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