Some Books on Epidemics

Kind of an odd topic to read about, but epidemics are strangely fascinating and can make for compelling narrative!

In fact, once I started Mary Beth Keane’s historical novel Fever, which is based on the life of Typhoid Mary, I couldn’t put it down.  At first I kept reading because I was so horrified by the terrible treatment Mary suffered at the hands of public health officials, but then I kept reading because I couldn’t get over how Mary kept making terrible decisions in her personal and professional life.  This book is a great example of how well-researched historical fiction can bring an academic subject to life.  Having previously only had cursory knowledge of the way Mary’s case progressed and the changing cultural and social attitudes toward disease and contagion at that time, I learned a lot from this book and also gained understanding of how the events of Mary’s case fit in with broader historical narratives.

Even if you think you don’t care much about typhoid outbreaks, the well-done pacing and solid writing in Fever will probably hold your interest!

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History suffers from being about 200 pages too long, but in spite of a tendency toward repetitiveness and overwrought chapter endings apparently tacked on to raise tension, the book covers such a fascinating period of history that you can’t help but like it anyway.

In addition to chronicling the flu pandemic of 1918, the book also delves into topics ranging from the science behind how viruses work, how influenza evolves and becomes more or less deadly as new strains develop, the way that medicine changed as a profession over time, and how geo-political concerns helped to facilitate and spread the epidemic.  I learned a lot from reading this book, and would recommend it to history buffs interested in the World War I era.

Although I didn’t intentionally set out to read two books about epidemics so close together, I did find that the information contained in these two books added to my understanding of each topic and gave me a fuller picture of an interesting period of medical, social, and cultural change.


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One thought on “Some Books on Epidemics

  1. I’ve read The Great Influenza and enjoyed it. I love nonfiction about diseases for some reason. The Great Influenza reminded me of a book about the bubonic plague I read a long time ago. For the life of me I can’t remember the name of it, but it was similar in that it talked both about the famous Black Death epidemic of the Middle Ages and the science behind it and modern-day plague (the bubonic plague is endemic to my native Southwest).

    The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is another in the same vein, though a little heavier on the science and kind of depressing.

    I’ll have to check out the Typhoid Mary novel, thank you!

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