What NOT to Read in a Pandemic

With the current global scenario ever so pressingly adding to an overwhelming media stream of pandemics, bio-science fiction and how to stay productive and remain calm in isolation, we thought we could provide  a counter to the dominant rhetoric. This is a list of of books NOT to read in a pandemic, unless your innate curiosity takes over…
Where possible, links to free online editions have been supplied.

José Saramago – Blindness (1998)
Saramago won the Nobel prize for literature at least partly as a result of this book. It is the story of an unexplained mass epidemic of “white blindness” afflicting nearly everyone in an unnamed city, and the social breakdown that swiftly follows. It follows a menagerie of brilliantly vivid but unnamed characters in a dizzying vision of humanity, for all its strength and weakness.
(Available on the free Kindle app)

Katherine Anne Porter – Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939)
Notably, ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ is one of the few books set in the Spanish Flu epidemic at the start of the 20th century. Really, the novella is a touching love story between Miranda, a newspaper writer, and Adam, a soldier. The title is Biblical, coming from Revelation 6:1-8. “There, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are the Conqueror on a white horse, War on a red horse, Famine on a black horse, and Death on a pale horse.”
https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.27876/2015.27876.Pale-Horse-Pale-Rider_djvu.txt (Internet Archive )

Albert Camus – The Plague (1947)
Although on a surface level this is a book about the cholera epidemic that swept through the Algerian city of Oran in the 1850s, Camus book’s scope is far broader than this. It is a book which speaks to the horrors of the spread of fascism and the conditions of Nazi-occupied France but also offers an epic account of characters cohabitating intimately with death.
https://archive.org/stream/plague02camu/plague02camu_djvu.txt (Internet Archive )

P.D. James – Children of Men (1992)
There’s always something quite thrilling about reading or watching old sci-fi set in a distant future, where that distant future is actually the year we’re living in. Whether that’s watching Bladerunner (made in 1982, set in 2019), Back to the Future (made in 1985, set in 2015) or V for Vendetta (made in 2005, set in 2015 and 2024) the effect is a combination of unsettling verisimilitude and a crushing disappointment that we still do not have flying cars (or an anarchic revolution). The Children of Men, set in a fertility crisis in 2021 and narrated by an Oxford don tells the story of the breakdown in society as sperm count in all men drops to zero.
(Available on the free Kindle app)

Giovanni Boccaccio – Decameron (1353)
Boccaccio frames his collection of strange, dirty and sexual stories in a pandemic of Black Plague, in which ten men and women self-isolate together in a house in the countryside a little outside Florence. Every day, for ten days, each character tells a story to the group based upon a common theme forming this 100 story collection.
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/23700/23700-h/23700-h.htm (Project Gutenberg)

Thucydides – History of The Peloponnesian War Bk 2, verse 47–54 (early 400 BC)
Although, by his own admission, Thucydides’ account is a little short on literary merit this is an extraordinary documentation of the Plague of Athens, an infectious disease that wiped out a quarter of the city’s population and had huge cost to human life across the Mediterranean.
https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=inu.30000010398067&view=1up&seq=7 (Hathi Trust Library, also found through SOLO)

Alessandro Manzoni – The Betrothed (1827)
As the title suggests, this is a story of young star-crossed lovers, separated by endless dangers, including plague, famine, and imprisonment. More than plague and disaster however, Manzoni was interested in why some of the worst human traits such as prejudice and scapegoating come out in times of crisis. The classic Italian novel is about love and power but crucially also about the suffering of innocents.
https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044015601685&view=1up&seq=13 (Hathi Trust Library, also found through SOLO)

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Really, this book needs little introduction. Having been spun out into a three series TV show and adopted as a symbol for women fighting for their reproductive rights in Ireland and the USA, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is truly a modern classic. The circumstances that form Gilead, the totalitarian dystopic regime in which the book is set, are various, but among them is a medical disaster – a radioactive or chemical threat that causes a spike in infertility in men and women. The book explores how natural disasters can be exploited by authoritarian governments for political gain and how much people are willing to lose in the face of fear.
(Available on the free Kindle app)

The Bible
Of course, The Bible is only rather tangentially about plague, pestilence, and disease. Regardless of one’s personal religious position however, it does make very good reading matter and is of course inextricably enmeshed in all parts of Western cultural heritage.
(Widely available online)

Gabriel García Márquez – Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
There is something in the liminality of García Márquez’s magical realism that comes alive when it is read in times of uncertainty. In some ways, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ follows a similar plot to Manzoni’s ‘The Betrothed’, charting the lives of a separated couple who remain deeply in love despite adversity. Much as cholera is presented by García Márquez as a tangible medical threat it also morphs into being an allegory for love, showing how love can be like an infectious disease, raging unchecked and leaving destruction in its wake.
(Available on the free Kindle app)

Hermann Hesse – Narcissus and Goldmund (1930)
Hesse’s book is heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s writing on human dual nature and on tragedy. Through the prism of the Black Death in medieval Germany, the novel examines the differences that small choices can make in individuals’ lives and how morality and redemption exist on a precarious knife edge. The two protagonists, Narcissus and Goldmund, variously embody what it is to be guided by the body or by the spirit.

Daniel Defoe – Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
The bubonic plague of the 1660s wiped out close to a quarter of London’s population. Defoe was only a toddler when this happened so was likely to have drawn the details of his novel from his uncle’s journal. Scholarship disagrees over whether this piece ought to be considered fiction or non-fiction but in either case, there is terrible poignancy in its descriptions of families ripped apart by quarantine.
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/376/376-h/376-h.htm (Project Gutenberg)

Mary Shelley – The Last Man (1826)
The book was harshly reviewed when it came out and was almost entirely overshadowed by Shelley’s far more famous work ‘Frankenstein’. The three-part novel is set after an apocalyptic plague in the latter half of the 21st century. As well as some chilling accounts of moving through deserted cities, more than in any other of her novels, it is here where we find characters directly based upon her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.
https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/oxford/detail.action?docID=2095245 (ProQuest Ebook Central, also found through SOLO)

Tony Kushner – Angels in America (1991)
Some of us were lucky enough to watch the fantastic production of the first part of this play (Millennium Approaching) earlier in Hillary in the Keble O’Reilly. Kushner’s Pulitzer winning play is divided into two parts, each of which is about three hours long when performed but it also makes an absolutely fantastic read. ‘Angels’ is about love, about homosexuality and homophobia, about Reaganism and Jewish identity. It’s also about the terror of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic and about disease striking unexpectedly and everywhere.
(Available as an audiobook through Audible)

Gaia Clark Nevola

Gaia Clark Nevola is the Senior Editor for Culture at The Oxford Blue. She is in her second year studying English Language and Literature at St. Catherine's College.

About the Author

Gaia Clark Nevola
Gaia Clark Nevola
Gaia Clark Nevola is the Senior Editor for Culture at The Oxford Blue. She is in her second year studying English Language and Literature at St. Catherine's College.