What Books Do You Pack for a Pandemic?

In Depth
What Books Do You Pack for a Pandemic?

It has become painfully clear that Covid-19 is both serious and spreading internationally; now, we’re simply waiting to see just how bad it’ll get. The picture from Italy is not encouraging, with accounts of hospitals struggling to keep pace. The best preventative measure any of us can take at this point is “social distancing”—in other words, sticking close to home, limiting your exposure to large groups of people, and washing your hands thoroughly and often. Basically, before going somewhere, ask yourself whether it could be an ominous tracking shot from Contagion. If we aren’t moving around, the virus isn’t moving around.

Of course, America has a system that is going to prevent many, many people from doing that—which means that it’s even more important for those of us who can to take action, and to do it now, on behalf of the elderly, the immunosuppressed, and the vulnerable. It’s hurry up and wait, in other words. Having spent my childhood directly on a river, it reminds me of a flood: You know how much it rained upriver, you know the forecast for the next three days, and the water is creeping higher and higher. You do what you can, and then you watch.

Well, I don’t know about you, but in the meantime, I need something to do that isn’t Cloroxing my counters every 20 minutes while listening to Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre on repeat. (Or, worse, refreshing Twitter.) The rest of Jezebel is in a similar position, give or take some furious vaping. And so here is our best attempt at reading through it. Some of these books are an obliquely related distraction; some are a means of leaning into the uncertainty of the situation; some are for the person who is comforted by the specter of grim worst-case scenarios. It’s idiosyncratic and we welcome additional suggestions.

The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta: I’m actually reading James McBride’s sprawling account of community and crime in Brooklyn housing projects in the 1960s, Deacon King Kong. It’s amazing, but it has nothing to do with viruses (so far). I’m just reading it for book club. For those who want something that pairs well with despair, I’m recommending The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta’s novel on which the glorious three-season HBO series was based. The basic premise is that two percent of the world’s population has mysteriously disappeared and those who have remained struggle to make sense of the loss. It goes really badly for most of them. Just something to think about. —Rich Juzwiak

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, Laura Spinney: Well, this one certainly won’t make you feel any better about the situation, and you should probably think twice about reading it if you’re already struggling to keep a lid on your anxiety, but it’ll give you plenty of facts to scare your recalcitrant friends and elderly relatives into “social distancing.” Laura Spinney covers the disastrous 1918 Spanish flu epidemic in deep detail, from the science of humanity’s relationship with influenza to the cultural impacts of the pandemic; after interviewing Spinney in 2017, I became the annoying person who shouts at everyone in the office to get their damn flu shot. Covid-19 isn’t flu and the comparisons aren’t exact, but the book is nevertheless a sobering examination of what we’re up against when dealing with a novel infection, and if you’re somebody who feels better with some facts in hand, no matter how grim, it’s worth checking out. I’m also planning to dive into The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death and Justinian’s Flea, even though I know that’s probably a terrible decision. —Kelly Faircloth

Emma, Jane Austen: This is apparently my own theory that I had long taken as fact, but the backstory driving the entire rom-com plot of Jane Austen’s Emma involves half the town of Highbury dying of some sort of plague during Emma Woodhouse’s infancy. Again, I have no evidence of this, but a ravaging sickness seems to have left many of the characters parentless and the Bates women manless and therefore penniless. The death of his wife by contagious illness also made Mr. Woodhouse a raving hypochondriac who never affords Emma the opportunity to travel and meet eligible men her own age. If all the parents in Highbury hadn’t died of plague Emma Woodhouse would have had a mother and Frank Churchill would have grown up right next door, making the entire romantic plot featuring 21-year-old Emma craving the parental approval of the only available man she’s ever met, 37-year-old Mr. Knightley, very unlikely. —Emily Alford

The Average American Marriage, Chad Kultgen: This book actually has nothing to do with plagues, but instead is a frightening depiction of marriage. In the current moment, where everyone is thinking and talking about how we’re going to die, I prefer to read a gentler story that reinforces the idea that monogamy is a miserable time to be had by all. Really puts things into perspective. —Shannon Melero

Forever Amber, Kathleen Windsor This cheerfully salacious doorstopper of a book—about an ambitious woman who climbs to the top of Restoration society and becomes a mistress to King Charles II—was first recommended to me by a high school history teacher. That’s because it’s an amazing, pulpy tour through its setting, a period that seemed very far away when I was 16 but now feels like the temporal sister city to 2020. It was a time of political instability, ambient paranoia, and a cultural aura of frantic horniness. In 1666, a particularly hideous year, London both burned to the ground and faced its final major bout with the Black Death. That’s what I remember the most vividly about this book: the plague scenes, more than any sex or scandal, are carved into my brain almost twenty years later. Revisiting it, this vibe is unfortunately very familiar: “But now, as the weather grew warmer, the plague seemed to increase and terror spread slowly through the city: it passed from neighbour to neighbour, from apprentice to customer, from vendor to housewife.” Heroine Amber waits too long to flee the city because she’s waiting for her lover, Bruce, who arrives and promptly succumbs to the sickness. The pages that follow are a vivid depiction of her struggles to keep him alive in a hot, stuffy sickroom, climaxing with Amber lacing his bubo and saving his life. A perfect combination of escapist and relevant. Fun fact is that it was one of the biggest bestsellers of the 1940s when, presumably, America was also working through some real heavy shit. —Kelly Faircloth

The Book of Revelations: The framers of the New Testament can never be accused of writing a boring ending, though whether it’s bad depends on your state of mind. The final book of the Christian Bible is a vivid romp through plague and pestilence announced ceremoniously by seven angels bleating on seven trumpets like an inconvenient iPhone alarm, except instead of Amber Alerts the people are subjected to bloody hailstorms, painful sores, and flaming mountains sliding into the sea. A literal interpreter might apply Revelations’ various plot twists to the current climate crisis—a third of marine life dies from the mountain in the sea, for instance—but apocalypse-depiction enthusiasts such myself view it as simply a canonical text that has inspired some of the greatest films of all time, from climate disaster movie 2012 to the cinematic work that is Nicolas Cage’s Knowing, in which a sequence of numbers predict earth’s greatest disasters. It’s a highly melodramatic read with dragons, lambs, sex, booze—Game of Thrones?— and eternal darkness, and I recommend reading it at your lowest points if only as a reminder that shit, things could definitely be worse. —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Lilith’s Brood, Octavia Butler: Octavia Butler’s trilogy begins at the end of modern civilization: having all but decimated earth, the human species is rescued by an alien fleet of genetic scavengers bent on upending “the human contradiction” (basically our need to one-up each other into dystopic oblivion) by breeding with us. Speed reading through the series last week, I was struck by how contemporary Butler’s vision feels, even though it was published in the ’80s. Humans rage against and then adapt quickly to the Oankali’s gender-fluid lifestyle, for example; they’re confounded by the choice between gradual extinction or metamorphosis into something radically new. I wouldn’t call it comforting reading, but it’s a captivating articulation of the feeling of wanting to cling to the dregs of human history, even when it’s proven itself insufficient. Maybe a mass extinction isn’t the worst possibility! There’s comfort in that. —Alexis Sobel Fitts

Island People, Joshua Jelly Schapiro: It is rare that I re-read a book, but times of great duress call for drastic measures. This is why I found myself settled under the crushing pressure of a weighted blanket reading, for the second time, Joshua Jelly Schapiro’s cultural history of the Caribbean in a way that could be problematic, but somehow isn’t? The improbably named Jelly Schapiro is a geographer by practice and that informs the writing of this in a way that is not pedantic, but rather soothing. Inspirational, also, to those who are willing to look death in the face and tell it to fuck itself sideways, then book a plane ticket to Jamaica. (Just kidding, don’t do that, or do it, I’m not your mother.) I figure if you’re going to be quarantined—pardon, socially distanced—you might as well try to entertain yourself by imagining that you are literally anywhere other than your fetid home.—Megan Reynolds

The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick: Social distancing will make an average person feel fine, then less fine, then very bad, because being alone (or trapped with people you previously thought you cared for but realize that you do not), feels panicky and awful and like the world is actually ending, when maybe, it’s just taking a break for a minute. Vivian Gornick’s slim little memoir about loneliness, sex, New York City and the joys of being judgmental will make you feel better—as if your self-quarantine is a choice. —Megan Reynolds

Cracks, Sheila Kohler: When you really think about it, teenage girlhood is very much a contagious plague and boarding school an oft-deadly quarantine (in literature at least). And Kohler’s novel of loneliness, abuse, collective delusion, and ultimately death among the forgotten girls at a South African boarding school is beautiful, frightening, and sad, very much like being a teenage girl was. —Emily Alford

The Divers’ Game, Jesse Ball: I’m reading both The Divers’ Game, a tidy novel about a society in which the upper class has unilateral permission to kill the lower class using candy-colored biological weapons, and The Undying, Anne Boyer’s difficult and poetic recounting of her breast cancer treatment, while I wait out my self-imposed quarantine far from home. I’m fine, really. I’m having a great time. —Molly Osberg

Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, Leila Taylor: I didn’t intend to read a book about the connection between the macabre of black Americana and goth subculture in the middle of a pandemic, but here we are, and honestly, despite touching on grim topics, it works as a nice bit of escapism from the fuckery going on right now. And as someone who is really freaking out about all of this, all I want right now is to read about fellow black chicks who are into Bauhaus. —Ashley Reese

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle: Because the world is very bad right now, I prefer to escape, in my free time, to places that are less bad or, at the very least, populated by good people overcoming the choices of bad people. The perfect antidotal mixture of this has always been Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, which I first read as a kid. Copies of its books—A Wizard of Earthsea, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu—have remained in my backpacks since, a salve in times of stress or worldly uncertainty. Part high fantasy romp, part feminist masterpiece, I strongly recommend holing up and tearing through the series. There’s not a particularly useful plague lesson to glean from them, but Ged’s unleashing of the shadow creature in A Wizard of Earthsea could be read as mankind’s hubris amidst its conquest of the natural world. It’s also a fantastic demonstration of the danger in believing in your own infallibility, whether as the world’s most gifted wizard or potential disease vector! —Joan Summers

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