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Reading during a pandemic: a top 10 list

Dr Jonathan Boyd, Industrial Technology Management programme director

I’ve always had a fortunate relationship with books: certain books have mysteriously revealed themselves at just the right moment, a moment in which their message was indispensable. Written in different times, for different audiences, books can find their way to a broad unintended audience who need them every bit as much as those for whom the author originally intended.

Over the past two weeks, my memory has recalled ten books, books that I read years ago but have suddenly taken on new urgency, new relevance, and new resonance: some are novels, some are non-fiction; some are serious, some are funny; some are informative, some are entertaining. All of them, though, are books that I highly recommend to you at this very unique moment in time: they can help us understand the pandemic and its effects, not just on the world, but also on ourselves.

One more important thing: all of the books on this list are available online and for free. A “National Emergency Library” (archive.org/NEL) has collected nearly 1.5 million titles and made them all available to ‘borrow’ for online reading. Registration takes just a few seconds, then you can read the books online or download as a pdf/epub.

And so, without further ado and in no particular order, here’s my entirely subjective top ten pandemic reading list

1.The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus

In this brilliant novel by the French intellectual Albert Camus, a plague appears from nowhere, inflicting a small commercial port in Algeria. It’s a reflective, haunting novel, and is uncannily prescient: the city is quarantined, medical staff are in short supply, and there’s even a debate among the townspeople about whether masks are effective. Most of all, though, it’s a contemplation about humanity’s vulnerability and redeeming capacity for love: “The inhabitants, finally freed, would never forget the difficult period that made them face the absurdness of their existence and the precariousness of the human condition. What’s true of all evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves”. 

​2.The Hot Zone (1994) by Richard Preston

There’s an old saying that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’; this non-fiction book proves that truth is also more terrifying than fiction. Ebola and other filoviruses are among the deadliest on earth, causing horrendous viral hemorragic fevers and for which there are no known treatments or cures. Preston writes a true-life thriller, following the path of a frightening virus from Kenya to Washington, visits quarantine centres and laboratories, observes infected monkeys and human corpses. Fortunately, one Centre for Disease Control official discovered an effective treatment for the virus: a bottle of Scotch.  

​3.The News: A Users’ Manual (2014) by Alain de Botton

Unlike the others on the list, this book is not about pandemics or quarantines, it is about the news. Many of us are now absolutely consumed by the news: national death tolls, politicians’ instructions, predictions about our doomed economies. It is easy to forget, though, that in many ways the news actually constructs our reality— the ways we think, feel and act ¬— and does so in often subtle, even harmful, ways. This book makes these ways explicit, and after reading it, you will be able to consume the relentless news about coronavirus with more discernment, with broader perspective, and with a clearer sense of how it’s personally affecting you. 

​4.The Stand (1978) by Stephen King

This is Stephen King’s masterpiece: he has said that he wanted this novel to be as epic as The Lord of The Rings, and the bold ambition shines through each of its magisterial 1,400 pages — although there’s a shorter 800-page version, if you’re in a hurry. The premise is simple enough: a weaponised strain of influenza causes a pandemic killing nearly the entire world population; the survivors are thrust into a nightmarish Hobbesian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish and short. It’s also full of great quotes. One of my favourites: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want for nothing. He makes me lie down in the green pastures. He greases up my head with oil. He gives me kung-fu in the face of my enemies. Amen”.

​5.The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic (2007) by Steven Johnson

This engaging non-fiction book takes the reader back to the cholera outbreak in London of August 1854. Amazon’s review of it is atypically good, and it’s worth just repeating here: “London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure-garbage removal, clean water, sewers-necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time. In a triumph of multidisciplinary thinking, Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories of the spread of disease, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a riveting history and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in.”

​6.Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

I’m a late-comer to this incredible book: a student — to whom I’ll be eternally grateful — recommended it to me last year. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who in this book tells of his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. From that experience, he discovered that while we often don’t have the ability to choose what difficulties we face, we do have the freedom and responsibility to choose our responses. And our responses, he said, give us meaning and purpose in life. This is essential advice at the best of times, but even more crucial when we, or the people around us, are suffering. Where can we look for meaning in times of suffering? In three things: the work we do, the love we give, and the courage we display. And many Lithuanians are doing precisely this:  an LRT article lists a remarkable number of examples of how Lithuanians are “making miracles happen” by banding together to help others through this difficult period. We should applaud them and follow their example. 

​7.The Andromeda Strain (1969) Michael Crichton

Before he wrote the popular novels Jurrasic Park and Westworld, Michael Crichton wrote The Andromeda Strain. The novel describes a deadly extra-terrestrial microorganism that accompanied a military space probe that crashed to earth, wiping out the population of a quiet desert town in Arizona, all except for an old addict and a new-born baby. And of course, it spreads. And of course, the world is doomed. And of course, the fate of humanity rests on a heroic team of scientists. But the reason it sounds cliché is only because this book made everything after it cliché, one of the reasons why the book has quite rightly been said to have redefined the science fiction genre.

​8.Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Marquez, a Colombian writing in Spanish, was one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, winning a Nobel Prize for his magnificent book One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1982. While Love in the Time of Cholera may not have won a Nobel, it’s nevertheless a beautiful, candid, and painful reflection on the themes of love, lust and betrayal. I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll simply say this: the plague of desire condemns man to resignation and suffering, as the plague of cholera condemns man to exile and death. It’s grim, but I suppose so is cholera.

​9.Siddhartha (1922) by Hermann Hesse

The title of this novella by the German writer Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, is a name formed from two Sanskrit words: siddha (achieved) and hartha (what was searched for). With similar themes as Viktor Frankle’s book listed above, it has an Eastern twist: it is a parable set in an ancient Indian kingdom, and centres on a young man – intentionally similar to the Buddha — and his journey of self-discovery. It is a lonely journey, during which he abandons his wife, his friends, his teachers, even his son, in a quest to free himself of distractions and attachments. Like Siddhartha, we’re all a bit lonely now, separated from our regular attachments: we may not be able to see our friends and family, and we can’t do many the things that we enjoy. But, while it would be unreasonable to demand of ourselves such a lonesome journey as Siddhartha’s, there is wisdom in using our period of isolation to question which of our attachments and distractions we would be better without.

​10.Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) by Jared Diamond

Diseases, and our immunity to them, can change the course of history. This hugely influential non-fiction book offers a grand narrative to account for the unequal success, and failure, of civilizations. In scope, it is similar to the more recent and equally influential “A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, but instead of focusing on the cultural aspects of human development, Jared Diamond emphasises the role of human geography and ecology. The emphasis on ‘germs’ is something that will most resonate with anyone who reads it now: for example, he argues that one of the primary reasons Europeans were able to so easily colonise overseas territories  — and which as a consequence made them very rich —was because they had already built up an immunity to diseases such as smallpox, which, when the local populations were exposed to it, caused mass deaths. Which prompts the question: what impact might the coronavrius have on the global balance of power between nations sand the course of human history?