Pandemic Literature: A Meta-List of the Books You Should Read in Coronavirus Quarantine

Describing conditions characteristic of life in the early 21st century, future historians may well point to such epidemic viral illnesses as SARS, MERS, and the now-rampaging COVID-19. But those focused on culture will also have their pick of much more benign recurring phenomena to explain: topical book lists, for instance, which crop up in the 21st-century press at the faintest prompting by current events. As the coronavirus has spread through the English-speaking world over the past month, pandemic-themed reading lists have appeared in all manner of outlets: TimePBS, the Hollywood Reporter, the Guardian, the Globe and MailHaaretzVultureElectric Literature, and others besides.

As mankind’s oldest deadly foe, disease has provided themes to literature since literature’s very invention. In the European canon, no such work is more venerable than The Decameron, written by Renaissance humanist Giovanni Boccaccio in the late 1340s and early 1350s. “His protagonists, seven women and three men, retreat to a villa outside Florence to avoid the pandemic,” writes The Guardian‘s Lois Beckett, referring to the bubonic plague, or “Black Death,” that ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century. “There, isolated for two weeks, they pass the time by telling each other stories” — and “lively, bizarre, and often very filthy stories” at that — “with a different theme for each day.”




A later outbreak of the bubonic plague in London inspired Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe to write the A Journal of the Plague Year. “Set in 1655 and published in 1722, the novel was likely based, in part, on the journals of the author’s uncle,” writes the Globe and Mail‘s Alec Scott. Defoe’s diarist “speaks of bodies piling up in mass graves, of sudden deaths and unlikely recoveries from the brink, and also blames those from elsewhere for the outbreak.” A Journal of the Plague Year appears on these reading lists as often as Albert Camus’ The Plaguepreviously featured here on Open Culture. “Camus’ famous work about the inhabitants of an Algerian town who are stricken by the bubonic plague was published back in 1947,” writes PBS’ Courtney Vinopal, “but it has struck a chord with readers today living through the coronavirus.”

Of novels published in the past decade, none has been selected as a must-read in coronavirus quarantine as often as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. “After a swine flu pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population, a group of musicians and actors travel around newly formed settlements to keep their art alive,” says Time. “Mandel showcases the impact of the pandemic on all of their lives,” weaving together “characters’ perspectives from across the planet and over several decades to explore how humanity can fall apart and then, somehow, come back together.” Ling Ma’s darkly satirical Severance also makes a strong showing: Electric Literature describes it as “a pandemic-zombie-dystopian-novel, but it’s also a relatable millennial coming-of-age story and an intelligent critique of exploitative capitalism, mindless consumerism, and the drudgery of bullshit jobs.”

Since a well-balanced reading diet (and those of us stuck at home for weeks on end have given much thought to balanced diets) requires both fiction and nonfiction, several of these lists also include works of scholarship, history, and journalism on the real epidemics that have inspired all this literature. Take Richard Preston’s bestseller The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus, which Gregory Eaves at Medium calls “a hair-raising account of the appearance of rare and lethal viruses and their ‘crashes’ into the human race.” For an episode of history more comparable to the coronavirus, there’s John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, “a tale of triumph amid tragedy, which provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon.”

Below you’ll find a meta-list of all the novels and nonfiction books included on the reading lists linked above. As for the books themselves — libraries and bookstores being a bit difficult to access in many parts of the world at the moment — you might check for them in our collection of books free online, the temporarily opened National Emergency Library at the Internet Archive, and our recent post on classic works of plague literature available to download. However you find these books, happy reading — or, more to the point, healthy reading.

Fiction

  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
  • The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
  • Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin
  • Bird Box by Josh Malerman
  • Blindness by José Saramago
  • The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
  • The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
  • Bring Out Your Dead by J.M. Powell
  • The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman
  • The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian
  • The Companion by Katie M. Flynn
  • The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  • The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
  • Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  • The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koontz
  • Find Me by Laura van den Berg
  • The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
  • Journal of the Plague Years by Norman Spinrad
  • The Last Man by Mary Shelley
  • The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  • My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
  • The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin
  • The Plague by Albert Camus
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • Room by Emma Donoghue
  • Severance by Ling Ma
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
  • The Training Commission by Ingrid Burrington and Brendan Byrne
  • The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera
  • The White Plague by Frank Herbert
  • Wilder Girls by Rory Power
  • World War Z by Max Brooks
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  • Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
  • The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead

 

Nonfiction

  • The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby
  • And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
  • The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
  • Flu: The Story Of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
  • The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John Barry
  • The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly
  • History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
  • The Hot Zone The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston
  • Networked Disease: Emerging Infections in the Global City by A. Harris Ali and Roger Keil
  • Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney
  • Pox: An American History by Michael Willrich

Related Content:

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

Why You Should Read The Plague, the Albert Camus Novel the Coronavirus Has Made a Bestseller Again

The History of the Plague: Every Major Epidemic in an Animated Map

Free Courses on the Coronavirus: What You Need to Know About the Emerging Pandemic

The National Emergency Library Makes 1.5 Million Books Free to Read Right Now

800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices

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.


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  • Douglas Wilson says:

    In fiction you have forgotten to include “Death In Venice” by Thomas Mann and also “The Ebb-Tide” by my fellow Scot Robert Louis Stevenson, the former featuring an outbreak of cholera in Venice, the latter smallpox on a schooner in…

  • daniel payne says:

    Thank you!

  • Sarah says:

    The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni.

  • Daniel Penrice says:

    “Nemesis” by Philip Roth

  • Kushagra Saini says:

    HEY MAN IT WAS A GREAT ARTICLE .I ALSO WROTE AN ARTICLE

    HERE IS THE LINK PLEASE READ IT AND TELL HOW YOU LIKED IT

    kushagra437.wordpress.com

  • Ben says:

    For the kids there’s also ‘Ant & Bee and the Doctor’ by Angela Banner. Some great ideas for keeping your spirits up during a three week quarantine – draw pictures, make sock pets, pretend it’s Christmas!

  • Jaime Vásconez says:

    Dear Sir,
    Among the list, a title missing is “Love in the times of Cholera” by the Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Although it is a love story, the context of the plot is a plague of Cholera in the Caribbean coast of Colombia – Cartagena and other cities included- at the beginnings of S.XX.

  • Kashni says:

    Thank you for suggesting this name I would love to read it .

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