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Pandemic Reading

“But darling the virus won’t affect us, will it?”

As of April 2020, half of the world’s population is confined to their homes.

And while this is a singular time to rewatch every episode of The Wire, perfect your banana bread recipe and finally learn to speak Portuguese, you really should be making extra time for books. Specifically novels that help navigate the pandemic.

With the current shadow of disease advancing at a surreal but tempered pace I have tried to avoid sensational literature, focussing on more muted stories that may even offer help in troubled times.

Here’s ten to get you started.

Blindness Jose Saramago (1995)
Out of nowhere a man goes blind. No one, not his wife, doctor nor the city’s chief ophthalmologist can understand why…then everyone who has come into contact with him goes blind too. The affected are rounded up into isolation camps but this is not enough and soon the entire country is without sight.

Nobel Prize winner Saramago has a great line in spare descriptions of an empty city and the oppressive silence that creates such dread.

Death of Grass
Death of Grass John Christopher (1956)
The Chung-Li virus takes hold of China, consuming the entire rice crop. It’s initially dismissed by the British protagonists as being so distant as to be of little concern, but then the disease mutates and starts ruining wheat, barley and every other strain of grass on Earth.

What’s compelling here is the speed at which society collapses. Quaint Middle England descends to barbarism in mere days, all too believably.

The Kraken Wakes
The Kraken Wakes John Wyndham (1953)
Almost all of Wyndham’s work explore aspects of the Thucydides’s Trap, the belief no two civilizations of equal strength can co-exist peacefully. The Kraken Wakes sees the arrival of mysterious alien craft that come to Earth and start to colonise the deep oceans. Various world governments fear such an invasion and attack, only for the aliens to retaliate by melting the polar ice caps.

With the climate changing slowly but inevitably, society creeps towards its annihilation.

Plague Year
A Journal of the Plague Year Daniel Defoe (1722)
A first hand account of living through the bubonic plague that struck London in 1665. #FakeNews, faith healers, live animal markets and casualty figures circulated on daily Bills of Death, all have eerie parallels to today’s crisis.

Earth Abides
Earth Abides George Stewart (1949)
Once civilisation crumbles should it be rebuilt or should we forge ahead with new ideas and notions of survival? This is a central question of the superb, multigenerational saga whose starting point is a deadly pandemic that has overtaken humanity. By book’s end at least part of the world is gifted a promising future, very different to it’s pre-plague past.

The Last Policeman
The Last Policeman Ben Winters (2012)
The main protagonist – beautifully fleshed out; he’s wry without being cynical and actually almost too straight for his own good – is a newly promoted detective who’s methodically working a suicide he is convinced is murder. The hook is that a ten kilometer wide asteroid is hurtling towards earth. No way to stop it. It’s civilization destroying, impact in six months.

Winters has some great observations about what is still working (the water supply, phones sometimes) and what is broken or fraying at the edges (newspapers are still limping along, but there’s no coffee; only tea).

I finished the book only to learn there are two sequels, the second of the trilogy placed at 77 days before impact, the last at 14 days out. All highly recommended.

The Road
The Road Cormac McCarthy (2006)
The bleakest book in the list, and a Pulitzer winner to boot. The Road tells the story of a father and son trying to eek out an existence in a world that has experienced some unknown tribulation. Yes, there are roving gangs, disease and natural hazards but it’s the quotidian grimness that grinds away up to the very last page.

Station Eleven
Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
A novel that focusses on the will to preserve human culture over the more base survival of the human race. Station Eleven is set twenty years after the ‘Georgian Flu’ wipes out 90% of the humanity, and follows a traveling troupe of actors bringing Shakespeare to the post apocalyptic survivors of North America.

On The Beach
On The Beach Neil Shute (1957)
After a nuclear war one of the few places still intact would be Melbourne, and this is where the protagonists, seeing out humanity’s twilight moments, are grouped. They are joined by an American submarine crew to await the slow southerly approach of a deadly nuclear fallout and face a life’s horizon measured in mere months.

World War Z
World War Z Max Brooks (2006)
Brooks modeled his zombie plague on the SARS outbreak of 2002 – this one begins in China too – and despite the fantasy aspect the way humanity deals with the horror is expertly done.

The winning tactic most governments the World over adopt is to give up the majority of their territory, retreat behind cordons sanitaire to rebuild and regroup before attempting the fightback. Perhaps ‘herd immunity’ is not such a bad solution after all.