Being in the middle of a pandemic and wanting to read about it challenge the notion of books, because there is always a time lag, and because, in contrast to online media, there is an editorial and distribution filter that adds curation and, at times, censorship. In contrast, people understandably want up-to-date information so they flock to newspapers and online media instead. The fact checking as well as in-depth coverage in the daily or hourly news cycle and in the blogosphere obviously less stringent but the bonus is that one can get the word out fast. In this overview, I’ve listed only books (for now). I’ve tried to capture the original publication year in the case of second and third editions of previously published works.
Having said that, in a quest to be relevant and capture the opportunity presented by the current environment, publishers have been extremely quick to issue books on COVID-19. Most of these books are published by journalists, public health practitioners or historians.
On the other hand, distributors have also censored many books from indie authors, who tend to have a great diversity in backgrounds, in a quest to limit what they feel is “misinformation” or “books related to sensitive events”. I know this because my own book was briefly censored for about 5 days before I was able to argue that, as an author with a pedigree of publishing, I should get through that filter, whether the book was published on an indie platform or a traditional one. One major book distributor still bans advertising of books on sensitive events and one major social media platform bans most (not all) ads for books “right now” that “don’t appeal to a general audience”, which is quite striking for a platform that has built its wealth on providing targeted advertising as a service for decades now.
The top books over the last thirty years
There have been a dozen or so notable books on pandemics published over the last thirty years. The Coming Plague, a New York Times bestseller in 1994-5, by science journalist Laurie Garrett is perhaps closest to having entered the public consciousness. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 1996 chronicling the Ebola virus outbreak in Zaire. Since 2004, she has been on the think tank staff of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Another notable book was The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus, a best-selling 1994 nonfiction thriller by Richard Preston, also about Ebola. Lastly, John M. Barry’s 2004 book The Great Influenza about the 1918 disease, was also a New York Times Best Seller, and won the 2005 Keck Communication Award from the United States National Academies of Science for the year’s outstanding book on science or medicine. Arguably the definitive account of the 1918 Flu Epidemic, it is now being read across the world in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Finally, The End of Epidemics (2018) by Dr. Jonathan D. Quick & Bronwyn Fryer attempts to both provide a deep historical perspective by analyzing ancient text for clues on the geopolitical, economic, social, and psychological effects of a pandemic and relate it to contemporary geopolitical configurations and technology. Quick and Fryer offer advice on pandemic prevention action including “spend prudently to prevent disease before an epidemic strikes” and “Ensure prompt, open, and accurate communication between nations and aid agencies, instead of secrecy and territorial disputes” and “fight disease and prevent panic with innovation and good science,” all of which are true but completely insufficient to prepare for or handle a huge pandemic like the one we are faced with in 2020.
Several sources report that pandemic books are selling well during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a curious fact. We seem obsessed with our own fate, even as one might have thought that fiction would be a source of refuge where we sought to escape rather than dwell in our sorrows. What does that mean? For me, it’s not so strange. When something encompasses your reality, you start seeing it and looking for it everywhere. In the spring of 2020, that phenomenon happens to be a pandemic. Let’s hope reading these books make us just a little bit more compassionate, wise, and knowledgeable about what’s happening now and what is to come, which is the focus on the book you have in your hand.
The ‘Silent Spring’ criteria for a book to be a warning
As for “warning,” I’d say that books on pandemics, whether fiction or nonfiction, generally can create general awareness but that they rarely constitute a cross-societal warning. Notable exceptions to this rule would be Silent Spring (1962), the environmental science book by Rachel Carson. Documenting the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides, it changed many people’s ideas about the environment and spurred President Kennedy into action. The year after, in 1963, the US Science Advisory Committee, released a report called “The Uses of Pesticides,” and by 1964 vendors had to prove that their product “does no harm” and by 1972 activists managed to ban DDT, the pesticide Carson warned about.
The conclusion from this literature review is that none of these books have risen to the status of a Silent Spring or constitute any kind of uniform “warning” that could have spun up major international pandemic preparedness to the tune of billions of dollars. That doesn’t mean that these books don’t inform, even entertain, as they educate. Here’s the list. If you have suggestions on books to add, contact me.
The pandemic book list
There are many ways to categorize books, by by popular rank, by quality, by alphabetical ordering (author or title), by format (hardback, paperback, ebook or audiobook) or by when they were published. For pandemics, so much depends on when the author wrote the book, which is why that’s how I have categorized this list. Most books are issued either in one format to test the waters (hardback to earn some money or ebook at a low price or free to warm up the market), but in the end, I’m assuming you as the reader will pick the format that fits your needs.
2020: Books on the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond
Pandemic Aftermath: How Coronavirus Changes Global Society (Atmosphere Press, 2020) by Trond Undheim (full disclosure: I’m the author).
On Pandemics: Deadly Diseases from Bubonic Plague to Coronavirus (Greystone Books, 2020) by David Waltner-Toews.
How to Survive a Pandemic (Flatiron Books, 2020) by Michael Greger.
2000-2019: Books on the background of pandemics
Pandemics: A very short introduction (Oxford University Press, 2016) by Christian W. McMillen (Paperback, Kindle).
The book is an account of pandemics throughout human history from a history professor.
Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It (Atria Books, 2001), by Gina Kolata ($14.33, Paperback).
The book is about the causes of the Spanish Flu and the possibility it could happen again.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (Penguin, 2005), by John M. Barry ($12.83, Paperback).
Arguably the definitive account of the 1918 Flu Epidemic.
Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History (Atria Books, 2018) by Dr. Jeremy Brown ($17.94, Hardcover)
The book written by an ER doctor, explores the complex history of the flu virus, from the origins of the Great Flu that killed millions, to vexing questions such as: Are we prepared for the next epidemic, should you get a flu shot, and how close are we to finding a cure?
The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers (PublicAffairs, 2016) by Dr. Ali Khan & William Patrick (Paperback, Kindle, Audiobook)
The book is a firsthand account of disasters like anthrax, bird flu, and others—and how we could do more to prevent their return and also an urgent lesson on how we can keep ourselves safe from the inevitable next pandemic. See a CSPAN presentation where the author elaborates on the book.
The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity and How to Stop It (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), by Dr. Jonathan D. Quick and Bronwyn Fryer (Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle).
The pamphlet attempts to both provide a deep historical perspective by analyzing ancient text for clues on the geopolitical, economic, social, and psychological effects of a pandemic and relate it to contemporary geopolitical configurations and technology.
1990-1999: Books on Ebola and Influenza
The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (Anchor, 1995) by Laurie Garrett (Hardcover).
The book, from a Pulitzer-winning journalist and commentator on pandemic readiness, traces the patterns lying beneath the new diseases in the headlines.
The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (Anchor, 1994) by Richard Preston (Paperback).
The book is the story of the deadly virus (Ebola) that emerged from Africa’s rain forests.
What others have said…
Just in case you want other sources, here are some articles about the best books on pandemics from other media.
7 Essential Books About Pandemics (The New York Times)
Books about pandemics to read in the time of coronavirus (Tampa Bay Times)
Ten books that offer lessons from past pandemics (The Globe and Mail)
5 books to read for context on the coronavirus outbreak (World Economic forum)
Beyond borders: the best books about pandemics (The Guardian)
Pandemic Book Lists (goodreads)
For an in-depth look at the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world, partly an analysis of the first 100 days, partly a scenario study of the next decade, see Pandemic Aftermath: How Coronavirus Changes Global Society (Atmosphere Press, 2020) by yours truly. The above blog entry contains material found in the book and has elaborated slightly on the role of nonfiction books in pandemic response compared to that book.