For many, a small silver lining in these months of unprecedented global disease is time for reading.
I’m usually not a fan of fiction, and I prefer non-fiction and primarily narrative history. But since I was in junior high school, I’ve enjoyed the secret pleasure of apocalyptic novels. Do you remember reading “On the Beach?” in high school? Or maybe you saw the movie. There’s been a nuclear war, and Australia and New Zealand are the remaining outposts of civilization, except for a reoccurring radio signal from the State of Washington. The red sports car crashing, the cyanide pills, the radio signal from the Northwest United States, all of it sticks in my mind fifty years later.
In the era of “Duck and Cover,” there were so many others, “Alas, Babylon,” the almost iconic look at post-nuclear central Florida written by Pat Frank in the fifties. I loved this book because I was remarkably familiar with Florida and could relate to their surroundings. (An aside, I got to know his son, Patrick Frank, who was also an Open Salon writer 2009-2013 and loved talking with him about the book, written when he was a child.) I remember my horror when reading that MacDill Air Force Base blew up. “Failsafe” is another that was immortalized in a movie with Henry Fonda. And the book Dr. Strangelove made into the movie “How I Learned to Love the Bomb.”
Later came the entire “Mad Max” genre, the “Planet of the Apes” quintet (I watched all five of them at a drive-in one night in college), “War Games,” “The Matrix,” and “Cloud Atlas.”
These books led me to tomes about bioterrorism, or how Mother Nature has gone awry.
As COVID climbed out of its hidey-hole and encircled the world, I thought about all the books I’ve read during my lifetime. Plagues have been with us forever, and people have been written about them for as long as there have been viruses. Daniel Defoe wrote a classic book on pandemics in the 18th century, and Albert Camus wrote one in the 20th century. In my lifetime, I started at age 12 with “The Andromeda Strain,” which was made into a scary movie. There’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “Station 11,” “The Vermillion Strain,” “Oryx and Crake,” There are also legions of books that deal with a combination of civilization-ending maladies, such as “The Leftovers,” “The Disappearance,” “Lights Out Cyber Attack” (by Ted Koppel), and “2030” (a strange book by Albert Brooks, of all people.) I also recommend “The Hot Zone,” which is a non-fiction book about Marburg, a former of Ebola.
If you want to dig deeply into the subject, read Laurie Garrett’s endless book, “The Coming Plague.” While it was written a quarter-of-a-century ago, it is still valuable reading. I’m not quite through it yet. I “read” on Audible because of eye problems (save my tired eyes for writing) and the book is 41 hours. I can’t say I am even halfway through the large book.
For me reading a book about the pandemic during a pandemic is not scary. I’ve had nightmares about real life, but reading these books is just fascinating. I’ve learned strange details that probably only matter in a game of trivia, like Russians don’t get flu shots, they use a nasal spray. I’ve also learned that I wouldn’t want to be on a submarine, during a pandemic, or during any normal time, for that matter. Tight quarters.
I just finished a book called “The End of October” by Lawrence Wright. Wright is a journalist, has written for many national papers plus “The New Yorker.” He is probably best known for the 9/11 work, “The Looming Tower,” about the rise of Al Qaeda. Wright’s new book was likely written when the COVID virus was still sitting in nature waiting to jump to human beings. But, the book is scary in its prescience. Humanity gets a hemorrhagic flu, one that like Ebola, can cause death within 24 hours. The virus is spread to the millions of Muslims at the annual Haj in Mecca, the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage that many in the Islamic faith attend. Because the virus is spread through those of the Islamic faith, this adds another twist to the book, making it also a geopolitical thriller. The hero is a CDC scientist, who was also a veteran of the Ft. Dietrich, Maryland, lab where the U.S. once worked on the most horrendous killer strains of viruses.
This book is a page-turner, but if pandemic novels bring forth your fear, don’t go there. We all have enough IRL to keep us up at night. For me, however, I don’t have the same reaction to fiction as I do to the NBC “Nightly News.”
I wish you all peace and comfort. And if you aren’t a frontline worker, you can support them or others. Send a note, send an email, call an old friend, and donate to your local food bank.
Feeding America link