Quarantine & virus reading

Ugh. It’s upon us: the apocalypse.

Well, not really, but I’ve been asked quite a bit for advice on what to read during the coronavirus apocalypse. So, here we go!

Let’s first break it down into a few groups. Not everyone wants to read about an apocalypse brought about by some virus gone mad, because after all–we’re living it, right? I’ve come up with these groups: long books to tackle, slightly meaty post-apocalyptic books, disease/virus-specific books.

Thanks to everyone who watched & responded to the Facebook Live reading of the first draft of this list!

Long Books

A forced or voluntary quarantine is a great excuse to read one of those really long novels that you have always meant to get around to. Here are a few that I have found either personally compelling or frequently-requested in the bookstore. I’m only dealing with books now thought of as single-volume novels, so works like Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” aren’t included.

  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Quite probably, the most stunning novel I have read in my life. It’s not for everyone, and I’ve had people tell me they tried it once and found it boring, then tried it again and found it compelling. If you can rejoice in details, and if you’re ready for a post-modern novel written 100+ years before the term “post-modern” was coined, then now is the time.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo. Alexander Dumas. If you want something a little more fast-paced than Moby-Dick, this epic novel of revenge is for you. It’s a plot-driven narrative that keeps going and has inspired who-knows-how-many bad movies, the book is infinitely better than any of them.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot [Mary Anne Evans.] A historical novel (written in the 1870s, set in the 1830s) covering life in a small English town. Interestingly, it had a slow growth in popularity, and what do you notice about the early fans: Emily Dickinson, Edith Simcox, Virginia Woolf…yep, they’re all women. The novel deals with women’s roles & marriage, and it wasn’t really until the mid-twentieth century that it began to receive consistent critical acclaim, and it has become a favorite of modern readers of Victorian novels.
  • Hawaii by James Michener. I’m not sure if the book is great or if it’s simply that a lot of people vacation there, but this is by far the most-requested Michener book. James Michener pioneered the modern epic historical novel, and eventually had a team of researchers to tell him what to put in his novels.
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Yes, you’ve seen the movie, but have you read the book? Did you even know it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award?
  • Dune by Frank Herbert. I explain Dune to people in this simple way: one definition of modern science fiction is “everything after Dune.” Part of the “New Wave” of science fiction, this book has well thought-out world-building like Lord of the Rings, and the political machinations of Game of Thrones. Plus: sandworms.
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. The Bible of American individualism; this book reads like a thriller (except for the long radio speech near the end–it’s okay to skim that part!) Even if you disagree with the politics, especially in this time where the we are banding together against an inhuman enemy, it’s a novel that will help you understand the passion behind “objectivism.”

Three choices:

  • Either Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes or Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne. Both of these books are interesting to me because they are structurally more radical than many novels–is that because they were written before literature had become formulaic, or were these guys just ahead of their time? They both also use humor to help you get through them.
  • Either Bleak House by Charles Dickens or Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Dickens usually has a light side and his sense of humor makes reading his longer works quite enjoyable; in Bleak House, however, he really was in a bleak mood, and this is a powerful but dark novel. If you want something more fun, try Thackeray’s masterpiece Vanity Fair, which is like Dickens only more sarcastic. But if you can’t handle the scowl or sarcasm right now, then it’s best to stick with Great Expectations or David Copperfield, both great stories with their share of fun and humor.
  • Either War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy or The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Arguably the two greatest Russian novels of the 19th century. Dostoevsky’s is more philosophically complex than Tolstoy’s; War and Peace has the intriguing war-torn landscape that echoes our socially distanced landscape–but also makes us realize how much worse it could be.

Also, after composing this list, I’m struck by how few come to mind which are not written by white men. Murakami’s 1Q84 doesn’t seem like one of his stronger works, Haley’s Roots is rarely read anymore, etc. I know part of this is just that before the 1970s or so, most “literary” works were indeed by white men, and this list almost entirely predates that era. A longer list would include The Tale of Genji, ma

Post Apocalyptic

Some of these–like The Stand and The Passage–blame the apocalypse on a virus, but in these cases, the apocalypse is more interesting than the cause. The next section has books that contemplate the disease and its effects with a little more interest.

  • Swan Song by Robert McCammon. Epic, violent, ultimately hopeful.
  • The Stand by Stephen King (virus). A bad case of the flu.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute. A classic of nuclear holocaust.
  • Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm. Apocalypse and clones, a great combination!
  • Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling. Set in the Willamette Valley. If you like it, there’s a whole series to read.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Pulitzer Prize winning novel noted for its dark vision.
  • Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (disease). The slow descent from civilization to primitive living.
  • The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline. After the apocalypse, Caucasians lose the ability to dream; but learn that removing marrow from Native Americans (a fatal process) restores it.
  • Xenogenesis Trilogy by Octavia Butler. Although Butler’s Parable of the Sower is more likely to wind up on a lot of post-apocalyptic list, the Xenogenesis trilogy is a selective apocalypse: the death of a single race. The coronavirus can be thought of as “selective” in that it kills elders at a much higher rate than youth.
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry. Because the apocalypse is for kids, too!

Disease & Virus Specific

Forget reading Dean Koontz and Sylvia Browne. Let’s go a little bit deeper into the effects a plague has upon people and their cultures.

  • Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1722). A novel that reads like nonfiction.
  • The Plague by Albert Camus (1947). Effects of the plague on the inhabitants of a small town.
  • The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969). Pure pulp but fun.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985). It’s more about love than cholera, but still good!
  • Blindness by Jose Saramago (1997). A disease which causes blindness sweeps the world; one woman can still see.
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014). Actors at the end of the world.

Non-fiction

  • The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. Ebola.
  • The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. Plauge.
  • The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. Flu.
  • Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. Let’s end on a hopeful note; the true story of a doctor who dedicates his life to fighting infectious disease.