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.


  • 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



  • 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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Comments (10)
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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:



  • 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 .

  • Pete says:

    Thanks for putting this togeth­er. What about Doris Less­ing’s The Mem­oirs of a Sur­vivor. Anoth­er Nobel Prize win­ner and hav­ing re-read The Plague & The Mem­oirs of a Sur­vivor this year and Ms Less­ing’s book moved me most. The movie with Julie Christie was pret­ty good too.

  • Joey Tranchina says:

    I’d like to add in Non-fic­tion: “The Bar­bary Plague: The Black Death in Vic­to­ri­an San Fran­cis­co” by Mar­i­lyn Chase, which details the last sig­nif­i­cant out­break of bubon­ic plague, which to the sur­prise of most peo­ple was in in San Fran­cis­co in the ear­ly 1900s, as it spread from the docks (S.F.‘s Bar­bary Coast) into near­by Chi­na­town.

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