Download Classic Works of Plague Fiction: From Daniel Defoe & Mary Shelley, to Edgar Allan Poe

The apotheosis of prestige realist plague film, Steven Soderburgh’s 2011 Contagion, has become one of the most popular features on major streaming platforms, at a time when people have also turned increasingly to books of all kinds about plagues, from fantasy, horror, and science fiction to accounts that show the experience as it was in all its ugliness—or at least as those who experienced it remembered the events. Such a work is Daniel Defoe’s semi-fictional history “A Journal of the Plague Year,” a book he wrote “in tandem with an advice manual called ‘Due Preparations for the Plague,’ in 1722,” notes Jill Lepore at The New Yorker.

In 1722, Defoe had reason to believe the plague might come back to London, and wreak the devastation it caused in 1665, the “plague year” he detailed, when one in every five Londoners died. This was not a story of heroes making sacrifices to save the city. “Everyone behaved badly, though the rich behaved the worst," Lepore writes. "Having failed to heed warnings to provision, they sent their poor servants out for supplies," spreading the infection throughout the city. Defoe earnestly hoped to head off such catastrophe. He wrote to issue an admonition, as he put it, “both to us and to posterity, though we should be spared from that portion of this bitter cup.”

The cup, Lepore writes, “has come out of its cupboard.” But so too has the resilience found in Albert Camus’ 1946 novel Le Peste (The Plague), based on a real cholera outbreak in Algeria in 1940. Though fictional, it draws on Camus’ experiences of that event as well as his time as a member of the French Resistance. Camus seems to have found the plague as metaphor particularly uplifting, nicknaming his twins Catherine and Jean, “Plague” and “Cholera,” respectively.

Whether we see it as a story of a siege brought on by sickness, or an allegory of an occupation, Camus wrote of the novel that “the inhabitants, finally freed, would never forget the difficult period that made them face the absurdness of their existence and the precariousness of the human condition. What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plagues as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.” Defoe might disagree, but plagues in his time were not also accompanied by widespread Nazism, a double crisis that might doubly force us to “reflect on what is real, what is important, and become more human,” says Catherine Camus of the soaring new popularity of her father’s novel.

We can do this through reading in our real-life quarantine. "Reading is an infection,” Lepore writes, “a burrowing into the brain: books contaminate, metaphorically, and even microbiologically” as physical objects capable of ferrying germs. Plagues are mass-existential crises on the level of WWII or the Lisbon earthquake that shook the faith of Europe’s intellectuals. They are also settings for love and terror, from Boccaccio and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Edgar Allan Poe and Margaret Atwood.

Vulture has published an “essential list” of 20 plague books to read, including many of the classics mentioned above, and a book that is hardly remembered but might be thought of as an ancestor to Atwood’s plague-ridden futures: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, published in 1826 during the second of two virulent cholera pandemics. In the novel, Shelley claims to have discovered the story in prophetic writing about the end of the 21st century, telling of a disease that wipes out the human race. If you’d rather not indulge that kind of fantasy just yet, you’ll find varying degrees of imaginative and soberly realist fiction and history in the list of plague classics below, all freely available at Project Gutenberg.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

History of the Plague in London by Daniel Defoe

Loimologia: or, an Historical Account of the Plague in London in 1665 by Hodges et al.

The Last Man by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Plague Ship by Andre Norton

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe

The Plague by Teddy Keller

The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio

A History of Epidemics in Britain by Charles Creighton

A History of Epidemics in Britain, Volume II 

An account of the plague which raged at Moscow, in 1771 by Charles de Mertens

A brief Journal of what passed in the City of Marseilles, while is was afflicted with the Plague, in the Year 1720 by Pichatty de Croislainte

Cherry & Violet: A Tale of the Great Plague by Anne Manning

Libraries may have shut their possibly contaminated books behind closed doors, bookstores may be deemed nonessential, but reading—and writing—about plague years feels like a necessary cultural activity to help us understand who we are apt to become in such times.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


Take a 3D Tour Through Ancient Giza, Including the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx & More

Imagine the pyramids of ancient Egypt, and a vivid image comes right to mind. But unless you happen to be an Egyptologist, that image may possess a great deal more vividness than it does detail. We all have a rough sense of the pyramids' size (impressively large), shape (pyramidical), texture (crumbly), and setting (sand), almost wholly derived from images captured over the past century. But what about the pyramids in their heyday, more than 4,500 years ago? Do we know enough even to begin imagining how they looked, let alone how people made use of them? Harvard Egyptologist Peter Der Manuelian does, and in the video above he gives us a tour through 3D models that reconstruct the Giza pyramid complex (also known as the Giza necropolis) using both the best technology and the fullest knowledge available today.

"You'll see we've had to remove modern structures and excavators, debris dumps," says Der Manuelian as the camera flies, dronelike, in the direction of the Great Sphinx. "We studied the Nile, and we had to move it much closer to the Giza pyramids, because in antiquity, the Nile did flow closer. And we've tried to rebuild each and every structure."

Of the Sphinx, this model boasts "the most accurate reconstruction that has ever been attempted so far," and Der Manuelian shows it in two possible colors schemes, one with only the head painted, one with the entire body painted in "the reddish brown reserved for male figures." He also shows the pyramid temple of Khafre, both in the near-completely ruined state in which it exists today, and in full digital reconstruction, complete with seated statues the Fourth-Dynasty pharaoh Khafre himself.

The model accommodates more than just the built environment. Der Manuelian shows a model bark with another statue being carried into one of the chambers, explaining that it allows researchers to determine "whether or not it's big enough or small enough to actually fit between the doors of the temple." Elsewhere in the model we see a re-enactment of the "Opening of the Mouth ceremony," the "reanimation ceremony for the deceased king, meant to magically and ritually bring him back to life for the netherworld." The rendering takes place inside the temple of the Pyramid of Khufu, peopled with human characters. But "how many should there be? What should they be wearing? Where are the regular Egyptians? Are they allowed anywhere near this ceremony, or indeed are they allowed anywhere near Giza at all?" The greater the detail in which researchers reconstruct the ancient world, the more such questions come to the surface.

In the video just above, Der Manuelian explains more about the importance of 3D modeling to Egyptology: how it uses the existing research, what it has helped modern researchers understand, and the promise it holds for the future. The latter includes much of interest even to non-Egyptologists, such as tourists who might like to familiarize themselves with Giza necropolis in the days when the Opening of the Mouth ceremonies still took place — or any era of their choice — before setting foot there themselves. These videos come from "Pyramids of Giza: Ancient Egyptian Art and Archaeology," Der Manuelian's online course at edX, a worthwhile learning experience if you've got your own such trip planned — or just the kind of fascination that has gripped people around the world since the Egyptomania of the nineteenth century. The technology with which we study Egypt has advanced greatly since then, but for many, the mysteries of ancient Egypt itself have only become more compelling.

via The Kid Should See This

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Take a Virtual Tour of the Paris Catacombs

The Paris Catacombs is “one of those places,” wrote photographer Félix Nadar, “that everyone wants to see and no one wants to see again.” If anyone would know, Nadar would. He spent three months in and out of the underground city of death, with its macabre piles of skulls and crossbones, taking photographs (see here) that would help turn it into an internationally famous tourist attraction. In these days of quarantine, no one can see it; the site is closed until further notice. But if you’re the type of person who enjoys touring necropolises, you can still get your fix with a virtual visit.

Why would anyone want to do this, especially during a global outbreak? The Catacombs have attracted seekers after morbid curiosities and spiritual and philosophical truths for over two hundred years, through revolutions, massacres, and plagues.

A stark, haunting reminder of what Nadar called “the egalitarian confusion of death,” they witness mutely, without euphemism, to the future we are all assured, no matter our rank or position. They began as a disordered pile of bones in the late 18th century, transferred from overcrowded cemeteries and became a place where “a Merovingian king remains in eternal silence next to those massacred in September ‘92” during the French Revolution.

Contemplations of death, especially in times of war, plague, famine, and other shocks and crises, have been an integral part of many cultural coping mechanisms, and often involve meditations on corpses and graveyards. The Catacombs are no different, a sprawling memento mori named after the Roman catacombs, “which had fascinated the public since their discovery,” as the official site notes. Expanded, renovated, and rebuilt during the time of Napoleon and later during the extensive renovations of Paris in the mid-19th century, the site was first “consecrated as the ‘Paris Municipal Ossuary’ on April 7, 1786” and opened to the public in 1809.

It is a place that reminds us how all conflicts end. To the “litany of royal and impoverished dead from French history,” writes Allison Meier at the Public Domain Review, Nadar added in his essay on the Catacombs “the names of revolutionary victims and perpetrators like Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat.” Ruminations on the universal nature of death may be an odd diversion for some, and for others an urgent reminder to find out what matters to them in life. Learn more about the fascinating history of the Paris Catacombs here and begin your virtual visit here.

via Boing Boing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Happened to U.S. Cities That Practiced–and Didn’t Practice–Social Distancing During 1918’s “Spanish Flu”

Americans have long been accused of growing socially distant, bowling alone, as Robert Putnam wrote in 2000, or worse becoming radicalized as "lone wolves" and isolated trolls. But we are seeing how much we depend on each other as social distancing becomes the painful normal. Not quite quarantine, social distancing involves a semi-voluntary restriction of our movements. For many people, this is, as they say, a big ask. But no matter what certain world leaders tell us, if at all possible, we should stay home, and stay a safe distance away from people who don’t live with us.

People in the U.S. have done this before, of course, just a little over a hundred years ago during the influenza epidemic called the “Spanish Flu,” though the buzzy term "social distancing" wasn’t used then. As the short VOA News video above explains, during the spread of the disease, city officials in St. Louis did what cities all over the country are doing now: shut down schools, playgrounds, libraries, churches, public offices, and parks and banned gatherings of over 20 people. Philadelphia, on the other hand, refused to do the same. The city “allowed a major World War I support parade to take place that attracted 20,000 people.”

The refusal to shut down large gatherings cost thousands of lives. “Three days later, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled with sick and dying Spanish flu patients.” COVID-19 may be a far milder illness in children and most healthy people, but this is exactly what makes it so insidious. One person can infect dozens before showing any symptoms, if ever. During the “Spanish” flu pandemic, “the best approaches were layered,” writes German Lopez at Vox. “It wasn’t enough to just tell people to stay home, because they might feel the need to go to school or work, or they could just ignore guidance and go to events, bars, church or other big gatherings anyway.”

The comparison between St. Louis and Philadelphia stresses the need for city officials to intervene in order for social distancing strategies to work. However we might feel in ordinary circumstances about governments banning public gatherings, the global spread of a deadly virus seems to warrant a coordinated public response that best contains the spread. “In practical terms,” Lopez points out, “this meant advising against or prohibiting just about every aspect of public life, from schools to restaurants to entertainment venues (with some exceptions for grocery stores and drugstores).”

Lopez cites several academic studies of the 1918 influenza outbreak as evidence of the effectiveness of social distancing. For even more data on our current pandemic, see Tomas Pueyo’s extensive Medium essay compiling data and statistics on COVID-19’s spread and prevention. And if you’re still having a little trouble figuring out what exactly “social distancing” involves, see this excellent guide from Asaf Bitton, physician, public health researcher, and director of the Ariadne Labs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

As Bitton tells Isaac Chotiner in a recent New Yorker interview, “social distancing isn’t some external concept that applies only to work and school. Social distancing is really extreme. It is a concept that disconnects us physically from each other. It profoundly reorients our daily life habits. And it is very hard.” No matter how polarized we become, or how glued to our various screens, we are “social creatures” who need connection and community. When we make the transition out of life at a distance, maybe the memory of that need will help us overcome some of our pre-virus social alienation.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Orson Welles Crossed Paths With Hitler (and Churchill): “He Had No Personality…. I Think There Was Nothing There.”

Dick Cavett excelled at turning the late-night talk show format into a showcase for genuinely revealing conversations (and the occasional wrestling match). Of the many riveting guests he had on throughout the 60s and 70s, some appearing multiple times, few could match Orson Welles for sheer storytelling prowess. As if in a contest to outdo himself, Welles appeared on Cavett’s show three times in 1970, and once more in 1973, as an amiable, gruff raconteur who lived a life almost impossible to believe actually happened.

Welles met everyone. He even met Hitler, he says in the clip above from a July 1970 appearance on the show, his second that year. In those early days, he says, “the Nazis were just a very comical kind of minority party of nuts that nobody took seriously at all” except Welles’ Austrian hiking instructor, who brought the legendary actor and director to a Nazi dinner with the future mass-murdering dictator. Welles was seated next to Hitler, who “made so little an impression on me that I can’t remember a second of it. He had no personality. He was invisible…. I think there was nothing there.”

By 1938, everyone knew who he was: Hitler was named “man of the year” by Time magazine, who wrote, “lesser men of the year seemed small indeed beside the Führer”—and Welles was named “Radio’s Man of the Year.” His “famous The War of the Worlds broadcast, scared fewer people than Hitler," the editors wrote, "but more than had ever been frightened by radio before, demonstrating that radio can be a tremendous force in whipping up mass emotion.” Welles’ never met Stalin, he tells Cavett, unprompted, but knew Roosevelt “very well.”

In a later appearance on the show, in September 1970, Welles claimed Roosevelt told him no one believed the Pearl Harbor announcement because of the War of the Worlds hoax. Here, in this twelve-minute clip from July, he has many more stories to tell and excellent questions from Cavett to answer (if he went back to school, he says, and “really wanted to get good at a subject,” he would study anthropology). Towards the end, at 9:00, he talks about another world leader who did make a distinct impression on him: Winston Churchill. “He was quite another thing,” says Welles. “He had great humor and great irony.”

Welles tells a story of Churchill coming to see him play Othello in London. “I heard a murmuring in the front row. I thought he was talking to himself.” Churchill later came to visit Welles in his dressing room and began to recite all of Othello’s lines from memory, “including the cuts which I had made.” Years later, after the war, when Churchill was out of office, Welles ran into him once more in Venice, and their prior association came very much in handy in the financing of his next picture. (He doesn’t name the film, but it might have been The Stranger.)

No one experienced the 20th century quite like Orson Welles, and no one left such a creative legacy. Always entertaining, his Cavett appearances are more than opportunities for name dropping—they’re televised memoirs, in extemporaneous vignettes, from one of history’s most engaging storytellers.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch AI-Restored Film of Laborers Going Through Life in Victorian England (1901)

In these times, we need to keep at some kind of routine. And so I’d like to doff my cloth worker’s cap to Denis Shiryaev, who once again has returned from the early days of cinema with another AI-restored clip of film from the early 20th century.

Ah, but there’s something amiss this time, a glitch in the matrix of expectations. Not all sources can be saved by technology. Fans of Shiryaev’s crystal clear journeys back in time (find them in the Relateds below) might find the footage rough. It doesn’t make this film any less fascinating.

Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon started their film business to try to copy the success of similar, earlier filmmakers like the Lumiere Brothers in Paris. Audiences would pay to see short films of how people lived, worked, walked about, and just existed. It was a window into another reality, and by pure chance a hundred of Mitchell & Kenyon's films were found preserved in a Blackburn, UK basement nearly a century later. This is a compilation of three of them, scored by Guy Jones with mild atmospherics.

More than any of the other films that Shiryaev has “restored,” Mitchell & Kenyon don’t try to hide their camera or pretend it’s not there. Instead, these three films make a point of inviting their subjects to look directly at us, and because of Shiryaev’s work these dozens and dozens of eyes really seem to be watching us from across time. The young boys are cheeky, the young girls shy, the older adults bemused or slightly irritated. There is no particular focus here--we can choose who we want to follow, which indeed was one of the reasons for these films popularity. They were designed for repeat visits.

There are two particular points of interest that happen very quickly. One is at 1:09--the appearance of an Afro-Caribbean man as part of the workforce. People of African descent had lived in Britain since the 12th century, but this might be one of the earliest films of such a person. The other is later at 4:24, which might be the first film of a bloke giving the camera the rude two-fingered salute. This moment is why the British Film Institute dubbed Mitchell & Kenyon “the accidental anthropologists.”

(You might also watch for the fight that breaks out near the end of the film. Real or not? You be the judge.)

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Isaac Newton Conceived of His Most Groundbreaking Ideas During the Great Plague of 1665

Whether you’ve volunteered to self-quarantine, or have done so from necessity, health experts worldwide say home is the best place to be right now to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For some this means layoffs, or remote assignments, or an anxious and indefinite staycation. For others it means a loss of safety or resources. No matter how much choice we had in the matter, there are those among us who harbor ambitious fantasies of using the time to finally finish labors of love, whether they be crochet, composing symphonies, or writing a contemporary novel about a plague.

Many lifesaving discoveries have been made in the wake of epidemics, and many a novel written, such as Albert Camus’ The Plague, composed three years after an outbreak of bubonic plague in Algeria. Offering even more of a challenge to housebound writers is the example of Shakespeare, who wrote some of his best works during outbreaks of plague in London, when “theaters were likely closed more often than they were open,” as Daniel Pollack-Pelzner writes at The Atlantic, and when it was alleged that “the cause of plagues are plays.”

You can forgive yourself for taking a few days to organize your closets, or—let’s be real—binge on snacks and Netflix series. But if you’re still looking for a role model of productivity in a time of quarantine, you couldn’t aim higher than Isaac Newton. During the years 1665-67, the time of the Great Plague of London, Newton’s “genius was unleashed,” writes biographer Philip Steele. “The precious material that resulted was a new understanding of the world.”

In Shakespeare’s case, only decades earlier, the “plagues may have caused plays”—spurring poetry, fantasy, and the epic tragedies of King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Newton too was apparently inspired by catastrophe.

These years of Newton’s life are sometimes known in Latin as anni mirabilies, meaning “marvelous years.” However, they occurred at the same time as two national disasters. In June 1665, the bubonic plague broke out in London…. As the plague spread out into the countryside, there was panic. Cambridge University was closed. By October, 70,000 people had died in the capital alone.

Newton left Cambridge for his home in Woolsthorpe. The following year, the Great Fire of London devastated the city. As horrifying as these events were for the thousands who lived through them, “some of those displaced by the epidemic,” writes Stephen Porter, “were able to put their enforced break from their normal routines to good effect.” But none more so than Newton, who “conducted experiments refracting light through a triangular prism and evolved the theory of colours, invented the differential and integral calculus, and conceived of the idea of universal gravitation, which he tested by calculating the motion of the moon around the earth.”

Right outside the window of Newton’s Woolsthorpe home? “There was an apple tree,” The Washington Post writes. “That apple tree.” The apple-to-the-head version of the story is “largely apocryphal,” but in his account, Newton’s assistant John Conduitt describes the idea occurring while Newton was “musing in a garden” and conceived of the falling apple as a memorable illustration. Newton did not have Netflix to distract him, nor continuous scrolling through Twitter or Facebook to freak him out. It’s also true he practiced “social distancing” most of his life, writing strange apocalyptic prophesies when he wasn’t laying the foundations for classical physics.

Maybe what Newton shows us is that it takes more than extended time off in a crisis to do great work—perhaps it also requires that we have discipline in our solitude, and an imagination that will not let us rest. Maybe we also need the leisure and the access to take pensive strolls around the garden, not something essential employees or parents of small children home from school may get to do. But those with more free time in this new age of isolation might find the changes forced on us by a pandemic actually do inspire the work that matters to them most.

via The Washington Post

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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