So, when people want to know what subjects you’re interested in, they’re probably expecting to hear something like “art” or “the Boston Red Sox” or “Batman.” Not “ways in which thousands or even millions of people die.” Which is why I usually keep this fascination to myself—it sounds a little weird.
But I’ve been intrigued by plagues, pandemics, and epidemiology for decades now. Plague, Inc. was on my phone until I realized that this game was taking up time I needed to reserve for things like “work,” “eating,” and “sleep.” The Pandemic board game is played more frequently than any other at my house. And yes, I get a flu shot every year (and if you don’t have specific medical reasons to avoid it, you should too).
It was a book that first got me intrigued—infected me, you might say (if you have a weakness for puns, which I do). Books have taught me the facts of these diseases and about the incredible drama surrounding them, both in fiction and in reality.
The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston
I bought this book shortly after it came out in 1995, and I went to a nearby sandwich shop to have lunch and start reading. On that day I ordered tuna salad and alfalfa sprouts on pita bread. How do I remember this so vividly, more than 20 years later? Trust me, there’s nothing like trying to swallow your sandwich while you’re reading about someone’s insides basically liquefying during the final stages of the Ebola virus. Preston revealed the world of virology to the general public—in particular, the branches dedicated to emerging diseases of terrifying lethality.
Many critics now look at The Hot Zone as being overly alarmist—concentrating on and exaggerating the most grotesque details. (Your internal organs don’t literally liquefy from the Ebola virus; they just hemorrhage so badly it looks that way. Not sure why that info’s supposed to make Ebola sound better.) But there’s no denying that, through this book’s success, the public became much more aware of the need to research, treat and contain serious infectious illness.
Me? I was hooked for life.
The Stand by Stephen King
Other epic plague stories have been written; by now Stephen King’s bibliography must be nearly as long as one of his novels. Yet I don’t think any fictional plague has ever horrified and fascinated more people than Captain Trips, and at least for me, The Stand may be King’s single greatest work.
In the first scene, a young guard violates quarantine protocol to escape from a military facility with his family. He thinks he can outrun the deadly biological weapon that’s been accidentally unleashed—but instead sets into motion a chain of infections that claims approximately 97% of the world’s population. King’s vision for the devolution of society—from fear to barbarity to silence—is as chilling as it is convincing. As for his descriptions of Captain Trips, aka Tubeneck … I have yet to meet one person who’s read The Stand who didn’t spend the first quarter of the book convinced they were catching a cold.
The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
Undoubtedly you’ve heard about the Spanish flu—the one that came along about 100 years ago. You know it was pretty bad. But did you know that most estimates believe it killed more people than the medieval bubonic plague? Were you aware that in several U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, the deaths were so numerous and quick that officials resorted to piling hundreds of bodies into mass graves? I wasn’t, before I read this. Barry also explains how our society has managed to almost forget a Black Death-level global pandemic that took place only a century ago.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Almost twenty years after humanity’s population is nearly wiped out by a global plague, a small Shakespearean troupe travels through a desolate landscape, united by the motto, “Survival is insufficient.” I’ll be honest: I have some issues with the epidemiology here. (Any virus that killed as quickly as the one she describes wouldn’t be able to spread worldwide; as anyone who’s played Plague, Inc. knows, viruses need hosts to remain ambulatory and contagious for a good long while if you want to wipe out civilization.) But the mechanics of the fictional disease are so beside the point. The excellence of Station Eleven lies in its vision of the world after the plague—the ways in which society, culture and art change in order to endure.
And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
This closely reported, in-depth examination of the first years of the AIDS epidemic is one of the most moving, impactful books I’ve ever read. Further research in the years since its writing has contradicted some of the assertions here—but at the time, this book represented a huge leap forward in the public’s understanding of the disease and its early spread. What And the Band Played On does better than any other book I’ve read is showing the intersection of both science and society when it comes to understanding and treating disease. It manages to capture the global reach of the epidemic while still drawing intimate, moving portraits of some of those lost.
Top image: The Stand (1994)
Claudia Gray is the New York Times bestselling author of many science fiction and paranormal fantasy books for young adults, including Defy the Stars, Defy the Worlds, the Firebird series, the Evernight series, the Spellcaster series, and Fateful. She’s also had a chance to work in a galaxy far, far away as the author of the Star Wars novels Lost Stars, Bloodline, and Leia, Princess of Alderaan. Born a fangirl, she loves obsessing over geeky movies and TV shows, as well as reading and occasionally writing fanfiction; however, she periodically leaves the house to go kayaking, do a little hiking, or travel the world. She will take your Jane Austen trivia challenge any day, anytime. Currently she lives in New Orleans.