Literature has long been a way for people to work through unsettling events — and epidemics are no exception! Here are some of the classics, for the historically inclined. You’ll notice this is a rather international collection; epidemics cross borders constantly, and so do the texts about them.
Boccaccio, The Decameron
Sometimes called “The Human Comedy,” The Decameron is collection of stories supposedly told by a group of young people taking shelter outside Florence from the Black Death. It’s one of the foundational works of modern European literature — a precursor to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales!
- read ebook in the Internet Archive
- find ebook in RUL: volume 1, volume 2
- download audiobook from Librivox
Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
In 1722, when Daniel Defoe published this supposed “diary” of a survivor of the 1665 plague, it’s not clear whether audiences understood it to be fact or fiction. Defoe’s first-person narrator switches back and forth between his own experience of terror and the official documents of the death count (the “bills of mortality”) in an attempt to capture the reality of a menace that seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once.
Albert Camus, The Plague
All of French-Algerian writer Albert Camus’ works fall somewhere on a continuum between narrative and philosophy. His novel about an epidemic in the city of Oran offers commentary on the human condition, and has been flying off the shelves of French bookstores in recent weeks!
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
It’s right there in the title! If you want to get truly lost in a novel over the break, Marquez creates sprawling stories in richly imagined worlds — Spanish speakers should consider reading the original to get a full taste of his extraordinary style.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
Canadian sci-fi author Margaret Atwood, famous for The Handmaid‘s Tale, imagines a funhouse-mirror version of our own technological world — and a worldwide calamity brought about by genetic engineering, epidemic disease, and human perversity.