If there’s any silver lining to this Covid-19 scourge, it may be that people now have time to read and write. I’ve included below some books to get you through the Great Pandemic, including accounts of previous pandemics and titles serving as wonderful distractions.
1) The Splendid and the Vile: A New York Times bestseller by Erik Larson about the Churchill family in the first year of WWII. Covid may be bad, but Western Civilization was at the risk of elimination in WWII. Even if you think you know the history of the period, you’ll hear many fascinating stories about surviving the Blitz, squabbles among the cabinet, smoking cigars, drinking champagne, and Churchill wandering around the house naked.
2) Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The 2015 memoir of an obsession, an addiction, an entire world in and of itself. You don’t need to know anything about surfing to get sucked in by the beauty and precision of the language, the crazy-ass characters, the danger and challenge of it all. It’s a rich, funny, evocative book, with wonderfully detailed descriptions of a fascinating subculture.
3) World War Z by Max Brooks: If you think we have it tough, read this book to understand just how challenging an outbreak could be (makes the coronavirus look like the common cold). This 2006 zombie apocalyptic horror novel is written from multiple points of view to demonstrate the chaos and devastating global conflict created by waves of zombies.
4) The Plague by Albert Camus: Published in 1947, this novel tells the tale of a plague overwhelming the French Algerian city of Oran and the doctors, vacationers and fugitives who seek to survive it. The novel is believed to be based on the 1849 cholera epidemic in Oran. The Plague is an existential classic, posing searching questions about the nature of honor, goodness, and meaning in an absurd world.
5) The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin: The original trilogy takes place in a magic land resembling the San Juan Islands in Washington state, inhabited with wizards, dragons, and other magical creatures. Start with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), then continue with The Tombs of Atuan, and the superb The Farthest Shore. Wonderfully imaginative and distracting from the current Covid crisis while deceptively wise and insightful.
6) Love in a Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A 1988 novel of astonishing power, with the main characters Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza falling in love in their youth. Fermina rejects Florentino in favor of the accomplished Dr Juvenal Urbino, who is committed to eradicating cholera. After many decades of marriage, he dies trying to get his parrot out of a mango tree. Having lived separately over five decades, Florentino and Fermina resume their romance, which despite the years, blossoms into true love.
7) Zone One by Colson Whitehead: This 2011 post-apocalyptic novel takes place after a global pandemic has laid waste to civilization, turning the infected into flesh-eating zombies. “Mark Spitz” and fellow sweepers who have survived the apocalypse patrol New York City, killing zombies so as to make Manhattan habitable again.
8) Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinning, 2017: The current Covid crisis draws comparisons to The Spanish flu of 1918-1920, one of the greatest human disasters of all time. It infected a third of the people on Earth–from poor immigrants of New York City to the king of Spain and Woodrow Wilson. In this narrative history, Laura Spinney traces how the pandemic killed 50-100 million people as it traveled the globe, exposing mankind’s vulnerability and decisively altering politics, race relations, medicine, the arts, and religion.
9) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, 1865: If you haven’t yet read this amazing novel, now is the time. The novel chronicles Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows some of the most well-known characters in literature, including Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to go to war; and a unforgettable cast of characters whose lives are irrevocably changed by the war. Should be on every literary bucket list.
10) The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, 1353: A story about a group of seven young women and three young men who escape the Black Death by sheltering in a secluded villa outside Florence. The tales of love, sex, and misfortune remain entertaining and titillating. The work had wide influence, including on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Nick: Thanks. I reread The Plague last week. Still reads as a contemporary novel. Remembering Love in the Time of Cholera too. Hope you’re well.
Great list, Nick. My book club just read The Splendid and the Vile and discussed on Zoom last night. We all loved it, but now may be ready for a book about Zoombies. ?
Glad you mentioned Camus’ La Peste/The Plague. I’m reading it now, and it describes the political, social, psychological and moral issues unspooling in our current epidemic better than any contemporary account I’ve read.