Books in the time of coronavirus

11 infectiously good reading suggestions briefly described and rated according to nightmare potential

Love in the Time of Cholera (photo credit: FLICKR)
Love in the Time of Cholera
(photo credit: FLICKR)
This pandemic is giving many people a chance to catch up on their reading, and while some may choose escapist literature, others turn to books about disease. The vast majority of these works, fiction and nonfiction, are about plagues far more deadly than what we are experiencing with the novel coronavirus.
Though this can be an upsetting subject, it can also be powerful to face your fears head on. Here is a selective list of some of the many works of literature that concern epidemics, pandemics and other related subjects, rated by how likely they are to keep you up at night. Almost all of them are available in e-book formats.
1. The Plague - Albert Camus’s 1947 novel is considered a classic of existentialist literature but it can also be read simply for its plot, its beautiful writing and its complex characters. The book tells of a contemporary outbreak of a plague carried by rats in Oran, an Algerian city. It is grounded in the details of a city and its daily life that Camus, a Frenchman born in Algeria, knew well. The eeriest similarity to the events of today is that the population is quarantined and stuck inside the plague-ridden city for months.
Some have read the book as an allegory about how the French behaved under the Nazi occupation, with certain characters profiteering from the crisis, while others are ennobled by it. Some of the debates between two of the main characters - a doctor named Bernard Rieux, who rages against the suffering he sees, particularly the suffering of children, and a priest - encapsulate and illuminate the main points of existentialist philosophy in a way that is far more vivid than most abstract philosophy texts. You may start out reading this for the story of the fight against the disease, but end up being transported by the philosophy and the well-observed characters.
Nightmare factor: Low to medium
2. Pale Horse, Pale Rider - Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel about a romance between a newspaper reporter and a soldier during the 1918 influenza epidemic is considered one of her best works. The title is a reference to the famous line from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A bonus of the book is that it deals with the fight of a woman to be taken seriously as a journalist.
Nightmare factor: Low
3. A Journal of the Plague Year - Daniel Defoe’s book comes with the subtitle, Written by a citizen who continued all the while in London. Daniel Defoe wrote this classic of plague literature in 1722, about a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague in London that took place when he was a child. Camus was inspired by this book in writing The Plague.
Nightmare factor: Surprisingly high
4. The Weight of Ink - This critically acclaimed 2017 novel by Rachel Kadish tells a very Jewish story set in 1660s London and in the present day. Helen Watt, a historian who has Parkinson’s disease, is researching centuries-old letters written by Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam, who was the scribe for a blind rabbi as a plague hits the city. At nearly 600 pages, it’s a book that will keep you busy for quite a while.
Nightmare factor: Low
5. The Great Mortality - The subtitle of this very readable nonfiction book by John Kelly is An Intimate History of the Black Death. Using historical accounts, Kelly looks at that plague town by town and city by city, examining how it traveled and affected people’s lives. He also tackles medical questions such as whether the Black Death was actually one disease or several. While that was a whole different era, I’d advise against reading this before bed.
Nightmare factor: High
6. The Stand - Many feel this story of a struggle between good and evil in the wake of a pandemic that wiped out the vast majority of the world’s population is Stephen King’s masterpiece. It’s long and full of twists, and has been adapted into two television series, one in 1994 and one that is coming out this year.
Nightmare factor: Medium
7. Outbreak - A beach-read by Robin Cook, this 1987 novel is about an outbreak of Ebola in the US, and has nothing to do with the 1995 film with Dustin Hoffman. This novel was the basis of a television movie called Robin Cook’s Virus. It tells the story of a determined doctor, Marissa Blumenthal, who will stop at nothing to stop the spread of the virus and cure it.
Nightmare factor: Low
8. Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel takes place after a swine flu has wiped out most of the world’s population, and focuses on a traveling theater troupe in the Great Lakes region. It’s both a story of how inhumane people can become during a crisis - it features a violent, abusive cult - and about how art has power even in the darkest of times.
Nightmare factor: Low to Medium
9. Earth Abides - This 1949 post-apocalyptic novel by George R. Stewart is about a biologist who returns from a hike in the mountains to a world that has been devastated by a plague. The man must rebuild society, which is the focus of most of the book. Interestingly, although the characters do not seem to be Jewish, the hero is called Ish (Hebrew for man) and his wife is Em (Hebrew for mother).
Nightmare factor: Not too bad
10. Love in the Time of Cholera - Many people, especially headline writers, have been referencing this Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel during the current pandemic. However, it’s a complex love story where cholera functions mostly as a metaphor for love and passion.
Nightmare factor: Low
11. The Plague Monument - Nobel Prize winner Jaroslav Seifert’s slim volume of poetry inspired by Prague’s Plague Monument was originally distributed as underground literature when the Czech poet was in danger of running afoul of the authorities in the 1970s. Many European towns and cities have plague monuments (also called columns) which were erected to thank God after the Black Death ended. Seifert’s contemplation of the monument leads to thoughts of disease, death, oppression, love and much more.
Nightmare factor: None