Friday, August 19, 2022

Great Books on Pandemics: Non-Fiction Edition

The Books With Laurie 
Pandemic Reading List
Non-Fiction Edition!

By Laurie Allee
For those of you reading this via email, click here to see my accompanying video.
This post contains affiliate links.  Click here for more info!

Let's Be Real...

I originally posted this only nine months into the global Covid-19 pandemic. Now, after over two and a half years, we have a "back to normal" that is anything but normal: continued infections, reinfections, post-Covid heart, brain and organ, endocrine and immune system damage, the debilitating mystery of Long Covid, the possibility of a lingering viral reservoir of Sars-CoV-2, vaccines that help avoid death but don't stop infection, drugs that are either impossible to obtain or contraindicated by drug interactions, a government intent on austerity, a citizenry divided, and a media intent on cheerleading folks back to shopping, dining out and going back to the office.

"History doesn't repeat itself" Mark Twain reportedly once said, "but it often rhymes."  Although the Covid-19 pandemic is uniquely awful, we don't have to look too far back to see that it resembles other disease outbreaks from our not-too-distant history.  In the early months of the pandemic, I tortured myself   read some interesting books about past epidemics, how people dealt with them, and what we (supposedly) learned from them.  I can't say that these books make me feel better about our current global crisis, but they point toward hope for eventual resolution, and offer insight into the profound resilience of the human spirit.

My suggestions bear repeating.   

With that, I give you my Great Pandemic Reads, Non-Fiction Edition:

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, was a New  York Times Notable Book, and an Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year.   This is a massive work of multidisciplinary scholarship covering a devastating cholera outbreak in London.  What makes it special is Johnson's old-fashioned, keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat storytelling.  

In 1854, London was transforming into the world's first truly modern city.  As the population rapidly expanded, the city struggled (and ultimately failed) to keep up with critical city infrastructure.  Without clean water, sewers and garbage removal, London became a breeding ground for a terrifying disease that blindsighted the experts. They didn't know why it occurred or exactly how it was transmitted.  They had no idea how to cure it.

Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead took it upon themselves to solve the medical riddle.  Johnson's sublime narrative details their quest, and makes The Ghost Map  read like a great detective story.  

This book made me think about a lot of things: the nature of scientific inquiry, the inevitable catastrophe caused by civilization's metastatic growth, the capriciousness of disease, the devastation of poverty, the tenacity of human problem-solving. 

 It's one of the best books of historical writing I've come across, and a beguiling cautionary tale for our own time.

I'm not going to sugar-coat it ... The American Plagueby Molly Caldwell Crosby, is a grisly, devastating read.  Crosby meticulously documents the yellow fever epidemic starting with an outbreak in 1878, and moving on to include a series of controversial human studies that were launched in 1900.  Rich with details and a lush cast of characters, this book blends history and science into literature. Crosby's writing is as beautiful as it is haunting.  (The New York Times book review described her as "Faulkner writing Dawn of the Dead.")

Like The Ghost Map, The American Plague will feel uncannily familiar.  The shock of a virus bringing civilization to its knees, the quarantines, the economic breakdown, the in-fighting, the horrors of disease, the acts of desperation, the feats of heroism ... we can see our own world in this book.

I felt oddly hopeful by the end of it.  It took 20 years to understand yellow fever, and came at a huge cost to the doctors, nurses and scientists who literally gave their lives battling the disease.  Their work ultimately triumphed.  It led to the vaccine still in use today.

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney offers insight into how the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 affected, disrupted and altered many aspects of life on earth.  Family structures, global politics, religion, arts and societal norms were all changed by the virus.  Spinney's book makes a powerful case for how the pandemic was at least partly responsible for  India's independence, South Africa's apartheid and Switzerland's move to the brink of civil war.   

Spinney reminds us that this disease cast a long, global shadow.  While Europe and North America reported the lowest death rates, other parts of the world were gutted.  In India, for example, the rate was ten times the rate in the United States, with 18 million dead.  That was 6% of India's population.  South Africa lost half a million children alone.

While there are striking similarities between the Spanish flu pandemic and our own Covid-19 pandemic, the book reminded me of how grateful I am to live 100 years later, with the benefit of modern hygiene practices and a universal understanding of germ theory.  (Now, if we could just get everyone to wear a mask...)

Clearing the Plains by James Daschuk is a horrifying look at how the combination of Canadian state-supported starvation and infectious disease created a catastrophe of almost unbelievable proportions.  This is a colossal work of historical muckraking, smashing the sacred cows of colonial myth.

It is not an easy book to read.  The narrative is at times so chilling, so heartbreakingly awful, it left me feeling shocked and sick.  The book details how the indigenous people of Canada were driven into reserves by the Indian Act of 1876, and how the brutality of that act combined with infectious disease and government-supported starvation to devastate a people.  

"Those Reserve Indians are in a deplorable state of destitution," Lawrence Clarke wrote in 1880 of the inadequate government rations, "Should sickness break out among them in their present weakly state, the fatality would be dreadful."   

Sure enough, tuberculosis and other diseases decimated the starving reserve population.  Daschuk calls it "a state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities, whose affects haunt us as a nation still."

Like Howard Zinn's A People's History, this book should be required reading for everyone interested in the real indigenous history of the Americas.  

Scratch that.  It should be required reading for EVERYONE.

I wanted this list to include American Pandemic by Nancy K. Bristow because this book provides such a rich social and cultural history of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.  Bristow covers the role of race, gender and class in this epic look at how the disease affected different people in different ways.    Bristow also looks at the role of physical fitness, public education and the American public health strategy during various influenza epidemics.  (Hint: it was actually more cohesive than the our own strategy during Covid-19.)  

This is an immensely human book.  Bristow utilized a wealth of primary sources -- diaries, oral histories, newspaper clippings, letters -- to reveal the many faces of the pandemic victims.  You will recognize these people.  The narrative breathes life into those who often are treated as mere statistics.  

In the United States, even though we've lost over 230,000 people to Covid-19 at the time of this writing, we are not really honoring the dead.  Our country will bow its collective head every September 11th to rightfully remember the ones killed on that day.  But, oddly, an average of 1000 Americans -- real, flesh-and-blood friends and neighbors -- die every single day from Covid-19, and instead of properly grieving and remembering as a nation,  we are inundated with public talk of "the importance of opening up" and "herd immunity."  I don't think most people have let in the actual horror of how many individuals have been lost -- moms and dads and kids and grandparents, healthy and infirm, at risk and not at risk.  I don't think we want to think about how many more we will lose.

Bristow's book is as much a memorial as a history. She breathes life into stories of death.  We need someone to do that for Covid-19.  

While Spinney's Pale Rider shows how the Spanish flu literally changed everything it touched around the globe.  Bristow's counterpoint in American Pandemic reveals that in the USA, influenza did not bring about any long-term societal change.  Instead, it reinforced the status quo.  Sounds familiar.    

These books gave me perspective for the current crisis.  We have so much to be thankful for, even in the face of Covid-19's unrelenting grip.  We are much better off, over all, than the people of previous pandemics.  That said, we are making many of the same mistakes seen in epidemics of the past -- from governmental neglect to a public who just doesn't want to wear masks.   We have lost so many, with more to come.  We don't yet know the full health effects of those who have recovered, even from mild illness.  So with that in mind...

Stay safe, and keep reading.