If you’d have asked me even six months ago what were the most pressing existential threats to humanity, “plague” would not have been in my top three responses. That’s only something that happened in the Middle Ages, right?
Fast forward to today and you might be feeling a sense of bewilderment at the wave of new phraseology and scientific terms being used daily in the media (I had to Google “epidemiologist”, amongst a few others) to describe the on-going catastrophe that is COVID-19. So in order to better understand this “new normal”, we’ve put together a selection of the 8 best pandemic books to help you understand the current COVID-19 outbreak, as well as previous epidemics and what action we need to take to prevent them in the future. Enjoy!
UPDATE (June 2020): After posting our original list in May, we received personal recommendations of additional books on pandemics from some of our chosen authors. We’ve now included these personal author recommendations! Thanks to all the authors who shared their favorite reads with us.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
by John M. Barry
Barry won the National Academies of Science 2005 award for outstanding book on science or medicine, and it’s easy to see why. The author takes us through the disaster that killed more people than the First World War, documenting in excruciating detail the political and policy failures of governments, both at local and national level, which exacerbated the crisis, and the resulting death toll. Official lies and cover-ups, as well as an unwillingness to recognize the virus’s lethal capacity inevitably resulted in disaster; and creates a queasy feeling of déjà vu with the current COVID-19 pandemic the world is facing.
On a more encouraging note, Barry contrasts this narrative with the heroic efforts of contemporary scientists to produce a vaccine for the virus, an effort which led to the wide availability of flu shots today. However, reading Barry’s authoritative account, an NYT bestseller, which was published nearly 15 years ago, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of outrage that the clear lessons that could have been taken from the world’s experience with the Great Influenza pandemic a hundred years ago, appear to have been simply ignored in our own time. A valuable, and humbling, testament to humanity’s ability to forget our own historical experience.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
by David Quammen
Taking its name from the term used by experts to describe a virus crossing from wildlife into humans (which is easier to remember than the scientific term of the same meaning, “zoonosis”), Quammen’s book takes the reader across the planet, from Central Africa, to Bangladesh and Southern China, in pursuit of the dynamics of transmission. The author takes a historical perspective, focusing on previous “spillovers”, such as ebola, SARS, Lyme disease, as well as AIDS.
Quammen’s experience as a National Geographic reporter shines through not only in the impressive geographic coverage of this work, but also in his crystal-clear writing style, which informs as well as entertains. Six years in the making, Spillover has established itself as one of the must-read texts within its subject, even before the COVID-19 outbreak which has sent laypeople (like me) scurrying to learn more about this phenomenon.
Author David Quammen recommends…
Alton’s Pandemic Preparedness Guide: Dealing with Emerging and Current Viral Threats
by Joseph Alton MD and Amy Alton ARNP
The Altons are medical practitioners who have authored hundreds of medical survival-oriented articles, as well as appearing on their own podcast and writing their own blog. With an emphasis on integrated medicine, making use of the tools and resources in your immediate vicinity, the Altons aim to provide all of us with actionable information and practices to be implemented in our own homes. At a time when such practical medical advice seems to get drowned out by the barrage of daily news headlines focusing on numbers infected and dead, the Altons provide a valuable contribution to the literature on pandemics and self-survival.
Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History
by Catharine Arnold
Published in 2018, marking the centenary anniversary of the “Spanish Flu”, as it came to be popularly known, Arnold’s work provides a fascinating insight into the pandemic as it was experienced by contemporary people, both civilians and soldiers as well as nurses and doctors. Her previous works of popular history, focusing on the unseemly underbelly of the city of London, have stood her in good stead to weave together such a broad variety of voices into a coherent account of the devastating virus as it battered ordinary peoples’ lives and bodies. The author achieves a singular feat in putting a human face on such in-human suffering.
Author Catharine Arnold recommends…
Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History
by Dr Jeremy Brown
Dr. Brown is the Director of the Office of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health, and a contributing opinion writer to The New York Times, and The Washington Post. His book, which was published in the centenary year of the Great Influenza outbreak, adopts a polymath approach in dissecting every angle of the pandemic, from the link between epidemiology and economics, to medical history, prevention, diagnosis and treatment, and healthcare policy. Even so, Dr. Brown’s prose remains extremely readable and, most importantly of all, deeply informative. Whether you’re practicing medicine yourself, or a layperson looking to learn more, Dr. Brown’s book contains something for everyone, and a whole lot more besides.
Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future
Professor Oldstone is the Head of the Viral-Immunobiology Laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute, and he brings his lifetime of academic research to bear on this historical treatment of pandemics. Focusing first on past menaces which are now either eradicated or much less prevalent (smallpox, measles and polio), the author then transitions to more recent threats, exploring the case histories of ebola, Hantavirus, mad cow disease, and HIV/AIDS. The revised edition expanded on this list with even more examples of recent epidemics, such as SARS, bird flu and West Nile virus amongst others. Most eye-catchingly, especially reading the work now in 2020, Prof. Oldstone includes portraits of some of the scientists who have for years been monitoring influenza strains in anticipation of another deadly outbreak…..
Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs
by Michael T. Osterholm, Mark Olshaker
In 2017, Dr. Michael Osterholm, a Professor of Public Health and founding director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, teamed up with Mark Olshaker, an Emmy award winning filmmaker and New York Times bestselling author, to write this prescient summation of his global experience in the field of epidemiology. As readable as an action-thriller, with the academic and intellectual chops to match the adrenaline kicks, Dr. Osterholm and Mr. Olshaker tackle the issue of pandemics from an often overlooked angle; how to actually defeat them. In summarizing the most current medical research, case studies, policy studies as well as Dr. Osterholm’s own professional experience, Deadliest Enemy’s comprehensive treatment of its subject matter was a searing wake-up call in 2017 to those who read it……..which sadly doesn’t appear to have included a majority of government leaders in 2020.
Author Michael Osterholm recommends…
Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present
by Frank M. Snowden
A member of the Open Yale Courses Series, its author, Frank Snowden, also happens to be Professor Emeritus of History and Medical History at Yale. Perhaps as a result, Epidemics and Society considers its subject matter from just about every conceivable perspective, not only at how the experience of past epidemics have shaped medical science, but also their more broader effects on society at large, from the arts to religion, intellectual history and even warfare (a particularly terrifying association).
Readers may be disappointed to discover that coronaviruses are not a particular focus of this tome, and some reviewers have commented on a rather dry writing style; nevertheless, it’s difficult to think of any other book on the same topic which covers as much ground as this one in the space allotted.
So there you have it, our 8 best pandemic books to help you (and us) better understand COVID-19. Which ones have you read already? Did we miss a favorite of yours? Let us know in the comments below.
Alternatively, you can hit up our Current Events section for further recommendations for fantastic books to understand the latest media topics.