Read for the times: Best books about pandemics. IMHO.

The Decameron


I’m kidding. You’ll never get through it, even an English translation. But it IS relevant: Sort of like Canterbury Tales, it’s a collection of stories told by a group in certain situations. In this case, it’s a group of nobles, 3 men and 7 women, who hole up in a castle outside Florence (actually, Fiesole) to escape the Black Death. The tales they tell include love stories, erotica and practical jokes. Bocaccio wrote it in the 14th century, not long after the plague had ravaged Florence. It’s tough reading, though, in any translation. A new one by came out in 2017—before delving into the full story, you might want to read this review from the New Yorker:

Plague doctors wore those scary beaked masks to keep them from inhaling pestilence—kind of like our 6-foot rule.

The Plague

Albert Camus

I have seen so many references to The Plague (La Peste) on Facebook since we met Covid-19 I begin to doubt how many who talk about it have read it. I haven’t, since 1972 when it was an assignment. It’s probably time to revisit it, but  looks like it may be hard to find a copy. Sales have been skyrocketing in recent weeks. According to the Guardian, The British publisher of The Plague, Penguin Classics, says it is struggling to keep up with orders. “We’ve gone from shipping quantities in the low hundreds every month to the mid-thousands,” said Isabel Blake, the senior publicity manager.” You can read that article here:

The Plague, written in 1946-7 and set in Algeria, where the philosopher writer was born, and tells the story of how different characters react to the plague when it overcomes their town. Based on a historical outbreak of cholera, of course, it can also be read as an allegory of how people reacted to Nazi occupation. The author said so.

Doomsday Book

Connie Willis

Willis writes humanist science fiction—less about the science and more about what if—and in this book she plays, as she often does, with time travel. Set in near-future Oxford, of course, there’s a mistake and our heroine ends up in England at the height of the 14th-century plague. At the same time, virulent influenza strikes the Oxford scientists—uh-oh! It’s a fun read, though the living conditions in the plague years are sometimes more horrifying than the disease.

And the Band Played On: Politics. People and the AIDS Epidemic

Randy Shilts

San Francisco Chronicle journalist Shilts documented the plague that was not to be named. Famously, for years, President Ronald Reagan wouldn’t mention the disease that was killing thousands of gay people in his home state. The totally heart-rending tale tracks the disease from San Francisco bath houses around the world, emphasizing how little was done by the government to contain or even study it because it was regarded as a gay disease. Shilts died from complications from AIDS in 1994.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

Laura Spinney

Okay, I haven’t read this one, but the Spanish flu of 1918 touched my life. I always knew my grandfather spent as much time in a French hospital sick with the Spanish flu as he did flighting in WWI. And my great aunt, Florence Mary (after whom I’m named) died young from the same flu. Historians argue that the Spanish flu (which didn’t come from Spain) changed the world as much as the grotesque war—the disease infected a third of humans on earth. Pale Rider follows the infection around the world, and examines its effect on different societies as scientists searched in vain for a sure cure. I’m gonna read it. Really.

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

A can’t-put-it-down post-apocalyptic story set about 20 years after a fast-spreading, fast-killing disease has destroyed human culture. From the shocker opening—a production of King Lear on a Toronto stage—to its wistful ending in an airport museum holding mementos from the height of civilization, including the graphic novel, Station Eleven.


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Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf is the late Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She still does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.

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