Posted by: montclairlibrary | August 1, 2020

Pandemic Reading

Plague Fiction, a list by the Friends of Montclair Library

So, I’ve had this book list theme idea simmering for a while, dating back to the days when epidemics seemed to be things that happened in far-away places, like zika and ebola…And then the current pandemic made it seem too real to talk about plague fiction for a while. But, while my own reading tastes tend toward escapism in times of stress, sometimes good fiction can help you process a situation or gain perspective, too. (And judging by the hold lists for most of these books, a lot of people are going that route.)

Authors dating back to Boccaccio and Chaucer have set their stories against the backdrop and aftermath of plagues and the social upheaval they bring.

Plagues in literature can be the central driving force of the story, as in The Plague by Albert Camus (see also Kevin Chong’s 2018 retelling, which moves the action to present-day Vancouver, and this article comparing the two) or background noise, like the 1918 flu epidemic that may or may not be killing New York City’s elite in the mystery A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang.

They can be based on real times and viruses, like the 1918 Flu epidemic in Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (based on Porter’s own experiences during the epidemic), or invented like the virus that leaves some survivors with magical powers – some good and some evil – in Nora Roberts’s Year One.

But like all fiction, books about plagues shed light on the human experience and our hopes and fears.

Plague literature ranges from almost-forgotten vintage stories like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (published in 1826, but set in a futuristic Britain) and Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), which takes place 60 years after “the great pandemic of 2013,” to classics like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, to modern classics like Stephen King’s The Stand, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, to eerily prescient recent novels like The End of October by Lawrence Wright (more on it here) and A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen.

Whether you like your plague stories funny, spooky, political or filled with zombies, there’s something out there for you, including:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – This story centers around a traveling Shakespeare company in the years after a fictional swine flu epidemic has killed most of the world’s population.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller – “Surviving a pandemic disease that has killed everyone he knows, a pilot establishes a shelter in an abandoned airport hangar before hearing a random radio transmission that compels him to risk his life to seek out other survivors.”

Zone One by Colson Whitehead – “In this wry take on the post-apocalyptic horror novel, a pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead.” – Goodreads. That’s right, it’s a zombie novel by Colson Whitehead.

The Rationing by Charles Wheelan – As a mysterious new pathogen threatens America’s population, governments and pharmaceutical companies maneuver to control the supply of the drug that can treat it.

Severance by Ling Ma – “A survivor of an apocalyptic plague maintains a blog about a decimated Manhattan before joining a motley group of survivors to search for a place to rebuild, a goal that is complicated by an unscrupulous group leader.” – NoveList. The author has “described [it] as an ‘apocalyptic office novel’ with an immigrant backstory.” (BBC)

Wilder Girls by Rory Power – In this YA book that’s been compared to Lord of the Flies, three best friends are “left to fend for themselves when their island boarding school is quarantined…a situation that is further complicated when one of them goes missing.”

The Blondes by Emily Schultz – “A hilarious and whipsmart novel where an epidemic of a rabies-like disease is carried only by blonde women, who all must go to great lengths to conceal their blondness.”

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton – “Sensing something is wrong with his owner, a domesticated crow abandons the only life he ever knew to discover that humans are turning into zombies and he must use knowledge gleaned from his TV-viewing to save them.”

Note: Most of the books referenced here are also available from OPL as e-books – search for the titles in Encore and sort by Format on the left menu, or browse the “Popular Choices” links on the right side of the book listing page for more options.

Further reading:
Not surprisingly, there are a lot of thoughtful and thorough lists and analysis of plague literature cropping up around the internet these days. For more suggestions see:

A really beautiful essay by Michiko Kakutani about NYC under lockdown, with some solid book recommendations and references, too

Why Reading Pandemic Lit Gives Me Hope

Reading your way through a pandemic

A novelist who was writing a book about a pandemic and how the actual pandemic affected her plans

So for probably January, much of February, I thought, “This is very topical. This is great. When people come to read this, they’ll go, ‘Oh, she’s looking at what’d have happened if that small pandemic got out of control.'” Then by mid-February, I was just thinking, “Oh dear.”
— Naomi Alderman

What we can learn from pandemic fiction

Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: What we can learn from literary history

How the 1918 flu pandemic shaped 20th century literature

Someday we’ll look back on all of this and write a novel

And book lists from:
Publisher’s Weekly
Bookriot and more Bookriot
New York Times

Stay well, Oakland.

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