Pandemics, epidemics, and viruses have been lurking in our backyards and family histories long before the written word. When humans finally did start writing things down, accounts of widespread illness and plague weren’t far behind.
Overview: Our Top Picks
- Pandemic 1918 by Catharine Arnold ($18.93)
- Deadly Outbreaks by Alexandra M. Levitt ($16.99)
- Spillover by David Quammen ($11.89)
- Winegard’s book by Timothy C. Winegard ($15.99)
- And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts ($14.69)
- Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky ($13.95)
- Borne by Jeff VanderMeer ($12.49)
- A Journal Of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe ($8.39)
- Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter ($15.99)
- Blindness by Jose Saramago ($9.99)
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Non-Fiction Books on Pandemics and Viruses
- Fiction Books on Pandemics and Viruses
- Young Adult Books About Pandemics
- New Books About Pandemics
Books about viruses from history offer us the chance to learn from our past and look at how technology and response strategy have shifted over time. In many cases, illnesses can crush a society or break a lesser spirit, but some good doctors, researchers, medics, and laborers on the front lines of disease fight beyond fear and cruelties with unbreakable determination to get past the hardship.
In the list below, you’ll find a great mix of both fiction and nonfiction books, from today and long ago, that tell tales of the relentless viruses and those who survived. In these books, you can read about today’s real-life medical professionals, researchers, and survivors, as well as great fictional protagonists whose decisiveness can determine the fate of the world.
Now, let’s see what's on the reading list.
Non-Fiction Books on Pandemics and Viruses
Listed below are some nonfiction books we’ve discovered, some of them may be fuel for bad dreams. Potential pandemics and viruses live and lurk in the most unsuspecting, but obvious places.
1. Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History by Catharine Arnold
Filled with actual accounts from diaries, witness accounts, and medical records, Arnold’s book chronicles the details of the 1918-1919 deadly influenza outbreak, which killed half a million people.
And all this while World War I raged on. Disinformation campaigns arose, but the flu navigated the globe without any regard.
2. Deadly Outbreaks: How Medical Detectives Save Lives Threatened by Killer Pandemics, Exotic Viruses, and Drug-Resistant Parasites by Alexandra Levitt
Doctors, veterinarians, and research scientists search for answers to the mysterious illnesses and outbreaks that ravage humanity around the globe.
From high avian mortality to malaria and psychological crises, Dr. Levitt exposes how humanity is frequently the root cause in Deadly Outbreaks.
3. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
Zoonotic epidemics are not new. In his book, David Quammen takes a look at the impactful animal-to-man spillovers, like AIDS, that may hasten as humans maintain the same powerful attacks on the natural environment.
Despite what the naysayers claim, humans are indeed part of the natural world—not separate from it.
4. The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator by Timothy C. Winegard
In Winegard’s book, you’ll discover how your blood is life’s building block for female mosquitos. She will smell you from 200 yards away, land on your unsuspecting skin, then seek the proteins from your blood to raise her babies.
If this isn’t sinister enough, she can cause crippling illnesses for you and lethal heartworm for your dog.
5. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
Without medical attention, the merciless lyssavirus will kill without bias. For those of you with infectious disease backgrounds, the authors’ exaltation of the evilness of the virus may be a turnoff. Still, they certainly won’t fail to entertain with brilliant storytelling in Rabid.
6. The Black Death: A Captivating Guide to the Deadliest Pandemic in Medieval Europe and Human History by Captivating History
The Bubonic Plague held Europe captive in waves of death across multiple centuries. Fear derided rationale and instead developed social injustices, isolation, and herd intolerance. Many consider The Black Death a classic book about death.
7. The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal
The Honest Courtesan is a real story about a young woman who sought to change her lot in life. She became educated and revered by men but hated by their wives and her community.
So, when the black plague held Italy hostage during the 16th century, the inquisition put Veronica Marco’s virtue on trial.
8. The Woman with a Worm in Her Head: And Other True Stories of Infectious Disease by Pamela Nagami
Dr. Pamela Nagami walks you through her life as an infectious disease specialist in what is both engrossing and gross. If you are a visualizer, then this book may not be for you.
However, if you want to read a well-woven book about what it’s like to work with interesting but horrifying diseases, you’ll enjoy it.
9. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts
Randy Shilts finds that the welfare of the nation was compromised for the sake of the American bottom line. In his book, Shilts pays homage to those tragically lost and condemns the public agencies and institutions that let many American people die.
This could be a great book to read to learn more about the AIDS epidemic during HIV/AIDS Awareness Month that takes place every December.
10. Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky
Survivors of polio spent their lives in constant pain management, but through the efforts of FDR and Basil O’Connor, and the donations of many generous Americans, researchers found a cure.
Oshinsky’s story takes you through the process and offers insight on drug licensing, testing, and how our legal system works as a result of these early days of disease control.
11. The Hardest Life I Could Ever Love: The Memoirs of Mary B. Blahnik by Mary and Frederick Blahnik
Mother of 14 and wife of a husband diagnosed with spinal-bulbar polio, Mary Blahnik’s life was nothing short of extraordinary. She fought against banks trying to take her farm, disease, and familial suicide, all with unwavering faith in God.
Her story comes from the heartland, and as Mary recounts Springs and Winters, you’ll understand how much heart it took her to survive.
Fiction Books on Pandemics and Viruses
In the books selected below, you will find intrigue, science-fiction, biological chaos, immense heartbreak, and a gripping feeling of one’s mortality. With a healthy blend of old and new, you’re sure to find one that piques your interest.
12. Cold Plague by Daniel Kalla
Cold Plague is for those of you who love giant conspiracy theories filled with pandemics and curvaceous women.
With diseases running rampant from Beverly Hills to rural France and into Russia, Dr. Noah Haldane searches for answers in the Antarctic to help—or harm—all of humanity.
13. Borne by Jeff Vandermeer
Borne is Jeff Vandermeer’s first book in a series that will have you mentally searching reality inside and out, trying to make sense of a dystopian world.
This fantastical tale requires some significant concentration and a lot of imagination, but you’ll enjoy it.
14. The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd (adapter) and Geoffrey Chaucer
If the language of the original book is a difficult read, then pick up Ackroyd’s version. In this revisit to The Shrine of St. Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, you’ll follow the conversations of 23 of the original 28 pilgrims. Each one seems to have a better story than the last—though they’re all brilliant in their own way.
15. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe’s fictional account of London’s Great Plague of 1665 is an effort in verisimilitude. These representations of the fear, hysteria, and panic that enveloped the city feel as real as a first-hand account.
The bloviating mayor of the city at that time was wildly selfish and only concerned with re-election, which likely increased the shocking death toll.
16. The Plague by Albert Camus
God, philosophy, humanity, and nature fill the pages of this remarkable and timely novel. When the town of Oran is locked down and separated from the rest of civilization due to the bubonic plague, fear and selfishness grip the village until a collective understanding returns them to their compassion.
17. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
Pale Horse, Pale Rider is one of Katherine Anne Porter’s more exceptional short stories. In it, the heroine and protagonist Miranda endures shattering bleakness while suffering through an illness. In her fight to overcome, she discovers unbreakable inner strength and determination. It’s a tragic but honest consideration of humanity in many aspects.
18. Blindness by José Saramago
José Saramago reinterprets plague pandemics in a new premise where blindness is the contagion. In Blindness, the characters are one moment fine—and blind the very next.
Set in Portugal, this dystopian novel lingers with you for days as you dangle in its grip.
19. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Set in the Midwest, Station Eleven follows a small group who must manage a crippling loss and the disappearance of humanity. Their lives are exposed pre- and post-apocalyptic, giving you a range of ideas, themes, and emotions on which to chew in a now human-barren landscape.
20. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
In Margaret Atwood’s novel, environmental catastrophes are already happening. Little by little, the flood approaches, and when it does, clever survivalists who remove themselves from the breadth of society will be the only ones to outlast the impending doom.
Young Adult Books About Pandemics
You’ll find something unique and wonderful in each of the books below, from eerily familiar times to tragic love stories that remind you of the fragility of life and to fate’s mockery of us all.
21. Edge of Collapse: A Post-Apocalyptic EMP Thriller by Kyla Stone
How could an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack induce a cyber-pandemic? Inevitably, the world would go dark, and the life people have known will end. But what about survival?
Hannah Sheridan is about to find out in Edge of Collapse as she tries to make her way past 200 miles of frozen north while risking her safety and life along the way.
22. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a zombie/apocalyptic book, and one of a three-part series.
In it, the main character’s only understanding of the world outside the consecrated zone is passed down from her great-great-great-grandmother. As a child, Mary listened to these campfire stories about places far away from the sanctuary and beyond the trees.
23. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Action-packed intrigue dominates Bacigalupi’s post-apocalyptic novel as the climate crisis consumes planet Earth. With the addition of rising sea levels and changes to the dynamics of society, this novel also draws some similarities to Lord of the Flies.
As with great dystopian pandemic stories of all types, chaos aligns in this book with plots for survival, cruelties, and discoveries of self.
24. War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi
If you’re a fan of Ship Breaker, check out this YA novel. Tochi Onyebuchi’s climate change and nuclear disaster novel is set in the year 2172 and is based on the 1967-1970 Biafra-Nigerian Civil War.
The main characters are two sisters named Onyii and Ify. Radiation has consumed the Earth, so people have fled to live (and fight) in the clouds. The sisters dream of a time of peace and hope, but they know they have to fight to get there.
25. Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott
A few things stand out about Five Feet Apart. For instance, it’s one of those fairy tale novels that support chance and fate over the reality of science and taking care of oneself.
That said, the themes in this story are similar in many ways to A Fault in Our Stars. And it speaks to those not only suffering from cystic fibrosis, but with all the additional distress of hospitals, living within a chaotic world, and trying hard not to fall in love out of fear.
26. Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, Book 1) by Marissa Meyer
Cinder is a futuristic sci-fi, dystopian retelling of the story of Cinderella. Cinder is a cyborg whose BFF is an android, living with aliens. The world's fate is about to spiral into a pandemic, and Cinder is their last hope.
27. Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
When yellow fever broke out in 1793, Mattie and her grandfather were left to choose to either flee Philadelphia for the country or to stay.
Although starvation, disease, and dead bodies are everywhere, the story of Fever 1973 takes an unexpected and uplifting tone.
28. Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Why do you need science fiction when the truth is so much more horrifying—or terrifying. Wanderers is filled with infuriating politics, fractured elements of our current world, and a disease that just takes over. Readers are forced to grapple with something that may have been lurking all along.
New Books About Pandemics
Look for both new fiction and nonfiction books about pandemics below, including ones that offer insight and those that emotionally target your current world views.
29. Quarantine Life from Cholera to COVID-19: What Pandemics Teach Us About Parenting, Work, Life, and Communities from the 1700s to Today by Kari Nixon, PhD
Viral and infectious diseases have been part of the world for millennia. In the Quarantine Life from Cholera to COVID-19, Nixon dives into how humanity has faced these challenges in the last several centuries—and what we can learn from each outbreak and its response.
30. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis
Lewis's book is all too familiar for those who’ve lived through the COVID-19 crisis as the book takes place during its onslaught.
You may face the strangeness of reading a story about a life you’ve lived through, and you may find yourself grappling with all the forces that try to deny the truth—and deny your survival.
31. Breaking: After the Thaw (The Thaw Chronicles, Book 2) by Heidi Catherine and Tamar Sloan
After their world has been shattered, Kian, Dex, Wren, and Nova must heal inside their new reality or choose another fate.
No matter how much you may want to do so, don’t skip to the end of this book to find out what happens! Enjoy the plot's twists and turns, and take the story in, page by page.
32. Turbulent (Days of Want Series, Book 1) by T.L. Payne
If you’ve ever asked yourself what could happen in an actual apocalypse, you may want to read this book. While it may stray from truths according to FEMA or those in charge of disaster management, it’s nonetheless a page-turner.
Pro-tip: This is not a suitable book for tweens or younger teens.
33. Surviving the Blackout by Colton Lively
Some readers have loved this book; others were upset by it. The unsettling theme here is that prejudice, unfortunately, becomes even more powerful and malignant when faced with both fear and tragedy.
As a book about survival, you’ll note the themes of family above all else—an excellent lesson for all, whether you like or love the book.
34. Eradicating Smallpox in Ethiopia: Peace Corps Volunteers' Accounts of Their Adventures, Challenges, and Achievements by James Skelton
During the 60s and 70s, Ethiopia was in a shocking state. This book is a deep dive into the truth of Peace Corps volunteers during this time, who sacrificed so much to support communities in need.
35. Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (The Open Yale Courses Series) by Frank M. Snowden
Snowden’s work is a nonfiction investigation into epidemics and diseases throughout history. Even the Black Death, he notes, has influenced our art, history, and medicine.
By examining our past responses to plagues and diseases, Snowden wonders how ready we are for what lies ahead.
Lessons from the Past
History can offer many lessons for the future. For instance, the history of today will teach us about long-distance caregiving and paying respects from far away.
It will also teach us that when we work together, we have limitless human potential.