Sunday, May 31, 2020

Books about Epidemics and Pandemics

I've decided to channel some of my nervous energy about COVID-19 into reading books about pandemic directed at the lay reader. I do read news stories and scientific updates, but it's hard to see the forest from the trees right now. 

By looking at the work of epidemiologists narrating how they have addressed various outbreaks over the last 100 years, I can learn something about how people respond to contagions that cause epidemics and pandemics. 

Here's my list in reverse chronology.


9 April 2019
If you want an overview of recent outbreaks, read The Pandemic Century by Mark Honigsbaum. 

The author is an oft-published writer and journalist who writes about infectious diseases. 

* Spanish Flu of 1918-1919
* Los Angeles Plague of 1923
* Parrot Fever Pandemic of 1929-1930
* Legionnaire's Disease in Philadelphia 1976
* AIDS in America & African nations 1980s
* SARS superspreader 2002-2003
* Ebola 2014-2015
* Zika in Brazil and Beyond 2015

1 February 2018
If you want a readable introduction, read Epidemics and Pandemics by Judy Dodge Cummings. 

Cummings is a former high school teacher who writes nonfiction books aimed at teen readers to be purchased by schools and librarians. 

* Bubonic Plague of the 14th Century Europe
* The Effects of Small Pox in the New World
* Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in the 1790s.
* Spanish Flu of 1918-1919
* AIDS pandemic of the 1980s.

She does explains some key terms and concepts, but this is the least demanding read from this list. I learned some new information. 

14 March 2017
If you are interested in the relationship of research and policy, read Deadliest Enemy by Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker

Link to my Goodreads Review

Osterholm has been working in the field of epidemiology since the 1980s in positions at the CDC and now as the director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy.

He describes some of the outbreaks of the late 20th Century and early 21st Century with an emphasis on how policies affect they way contagions function.  He also makes projections about future risks and how to prepare for them. 

7 February 2017
If you like a heavy does of snark with your pop science, read Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright. 

Link to my Goodreads Review

Wright has written a few books and a number of magazine articles on an array of topics. She's not an expert in the field, but she has a sarcastic tone and reference to pop culture that many would find entertaining. That being said, it's still written at a college level. 

She summarizes the devastation wielded by a number of plagues: antonine, bubonic, dancing, smallpox, syphilis, TB, cholera, leprosy, typhoid, Spanish flu, encephalitis lethargica, lobotomies, polio and AIDS.

16 February 2016
If you want an analysis of the influence human behavior (psychology and sociology) has on pandemics, read Pandemic by Sonia Shah. 

Shah is a science writer who handles technical detail responsibly. However, she takes a good, hard look at how human beings bring bias in ways that amplify the damage of contagions. She has a lot of experience studying malaria and cholera, but in the majority of the chapters (i.e., "Filth" and "Blame") she uses multiple pandemics to illustrate the chapter's titular concept. 

30 September 2014
If you are interested in metaphor as a tool for philosophical observations, then read On Immunity by Eula Biss. 

The author is a child of a physician and a poet. She has degrees in nonfiction writing and in creative writer. Biss writes a nonfiction book that explores how people's feelings about contagions affects how they see the world around them. 

She adopts some of the methods that Susan Sontag has used in using metaphor as a tool of inquiry.  (Sontag has two oft-quoted 1989 book: Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

1 September 2013
If you want detail about seven different plagues that is for a lay reader who doesn't mind a lot of detail, read Deadly Outbreaks by Alexandra M. Levitt

Link to my Goodreads Review

Levitt writes each chapter as a medical mystery so that you can struggle along with epidemiologists who are trying to find the cause for a variety of outbreak. This collection has less overlap in the case studies than the other "plague by plague" overviews described above. Suspenseful!

1 September 2006
If you want to learn about the birth of the field of epidemiology, read The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson 

Link to my Goodreads Review

Londoner living during the Victorian era did a lot of leg work to discover the origins of a 1854 cholera outbreak. His biggest roadblock was the acceptance of a centuries' old flawed paradigm: the theory that origin of disease comes from miasma--meaning vapors, gases.

Almost every book above referred to Snow's work and the iconic removal of the Broad Street pump. If you want a deep dive into that outbreak, this is the book for you.

Originally published in 1947
If you want to read a classic work of fiction about a plague, read The Plague by Albert Camus. 

This is a work of nonfiction about French-speaking colonialists living in Algeria during a plague. Many of the authors of the nonfiction books above use quotes from Camus' novel as epigraphs for one or more chapters. 

Even though it's fiction, many epidemiologists find value in the descriptions the philosopher Camus makes about how people respond to plagues.



  1. You are now officially an expert due to all this reading. I am on a reading jag too, about Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston Churchill and now two more Churchill books.

    1. That's cool! My daughter went on a trip last summer to visit several sites related to WW2 including being on the beaches of Normandy with WW2 vets and some world leaders such as Macron. She visited a Churchill site. I can't remember where. But now seems like a good time to read about a leader and his choices during difficult times. Enjoy your growing knowledge base about him.

  2. Great list. Will add to my bookmarks.

  3. These look interesting! I am putting the middle school one on my list as a middle school teacher!

    1. Melanie: I learned a lot from that book! It's information rich without being too technical. All my best to you with teaching during a pandemic.

  4. I am just finishing up Spillover by David Quammen. Oh boy...interesting to say the least. A little technical but I am glad I read it.

    1. Thanks for the preview. As stated above, I have it on hold. I'll remain patient while I wait for for another patron to return it. I feel as though understanding only part of a technically demanding book still contributes to my knowledge base. I felt that way while reading Emperor of Maladies (about cancer). It was a hard book! Thanks for stopping by the blog.

  5. Thank you so much for these suggestions, Karen! Husby has been voraciously reading anything he can find about pandemics and epidemics. I am passing these along to him! (Then he digests and passes them along to me!)

    1. No problem. And if he reads a book published in the last 10 years or so on this topic that I haven't listed (note the two library holds), then please pass along the title. Take care.