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.
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Books about viruses from history offer us the chance to learn from our past and look at how technology and response strategy has 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: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in 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.
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.
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 this 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.
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 B. 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 Pandemic by Daniel Kalla
Cold Pandemic 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 Anne Porter
Pale Horse, Pale Rider, is one of 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, a small group 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.
Lessons from the Past
It will also teach us that when we work together, we have limitless human potential.