In these uncertain times, it is no surprise that many are turning to art for a sense of stimulation. Reading literature in particular can often be an effective coping strategy to keep yourself sane and grounded while the world is crumbling around you. People tend to turn to reading as a means to expand their mind and inform themselves, in order to be well rounded human beings. In 2020, at the height of the Coronavirus disaster, books covering the topics of death and disease have skyrocketed in sales in the past months, proving that consumers have, on some level, secretly desired something dark to scratch their itch for thrill and adrenaline. Many are also compelled to read these books because they desire to reflect and gain insight on our current situation, and wish to avoid our past errors as a civilization.
During this time, people are hungry for facts and truth, drawing many to the nonfiction genre. The Great Influenza by John M. Barry covers the story of the deadliest pandemic in history, the 1918 flu. Barry is an American author and historian who has written for publications such as Time Magazine, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. His 2004 novel, The Great Influenza, is a thorough and dense read, with over four hundred pages of factual information regarding the culture, science, and politics of the influenza. In the book, Barry focuses on how humans ultimately became triumphant in the battle due to the phenomenon of modern science and medicine, something that wasn’t always on our side during previous plagues. With disturbing and emotional stories of real life death, The Great Influenza is not for the faint hearted, but a necessary contribution to society nonetheless.
Barry’s The Great Influenza shot up to the top of the New York Times bestseller’s list in April 2020, despite being written in 2004, and has remained there for eight weeks. Books written over ten years ago suddenly rising to bestsellers lists is a somewhat rare phenomenon, but is occasionally seen when the topic is covering relevant information. However, this typically occurs when a new movie is released about a classic tale, as opposed to a deadly pandemic sweeping the nation. A prime example of this is the legendary Harry Potter series. Although the first novel gained modest popularity upon its first release, it wasn’t until after the movie adaptions that the sales begin to rise. Given that The Great Influenza is factual and historically accurate, readers cannot rely on the comfort of the idea of fiction or fantasy to deny the reality at hand. Instead, they are faced with grizzly deaths and graphic imagery, but this has proven to not be a deterrent to sales numbers. Thorough and in depth, The Great Influenza is a harsh wake up call for what this nation is facing.
The Great Influenza is a unique book, in the sense that Barry’s writing talents allow him to report on highly complicated information in a manner that is accessible to many readers, making his goal of spreading awareness about the disease all the more effective. Even though it is a work of historical nonfiction, at times the book feels almost fiction or fantasy-like. This is because Barry’s writing style is so immersive, that readers feel as if they are closely following the lives of many protagonists, sympathizing with the fear and agony they are experiencing firsthand. A book covering such scientific information is easy to feel stale or trite, yet The Great Influenza manages to stir the pot with a proportionate blend of fact and emotion. As Barry states about the suddenness and intensity of the influenza that struck society, “Death itself could come so fast”, relevant to Corona’s unpredictable nature in 2020. An unsurprising element of this historical book is how poorly many state’s governments chose to handle the situation due to their own stubbornness, causing unprecedented amounts of death and suffering. With this insight from the past, Barry gives readers an opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and to not succumb to the egoism that led to the severity of the 1918 influenza in the first place.
Although it is useful to reflect on the past, on the other end of the spectrum, people need to read about what is happening, when it is happening. The End of October is a fiction novel by Pulitzer prize winning author Lawrence Wright. He is highly regarded author, known for his hard-hitting writing in historical and political subjects. A staff writer for New York Magazine, Wright best known for his 2006 book The Looming Tower, which is about the origins of Al-Qaeda and the September 11 attacks. His most recent work, The End of October, tells the very relevant story of a devastating pandemic that sweeps the entire planet earth, leaving millions dead. Published in April 2020, Lawrence began writing the novel before the news of Coronavirus shook the world. The similarities are eerie. In The End of October, an unknown virus similar to the flu puzzles doctors, and is spreading rapidly, with a high chance of death to those who become infected. Set in present day, the mystery disease is researched and compared to historical events such as AIDS, SARS, the swine flu, and black death, but to no avail. In the early stages of the pandemic, doctors are adamant that borders be closed and all travel be halted to limit dangerous spreading of the disease, only to be protested highly by rulers who worry about the state of the economy. (The only unfortunate difference is that in the book, the fictionalized president and vice president both become infected.) It is a sci-fi thriller dedicated to adult audiences, with language that is dark and chilling, yet eerily calm and composed in the face of disaster, with a pragmatic and level headed protagonist. Readers follow the journey of a reliable and ethical narrator, Henry Parsons the pathologist, as he attempts to uncover dark secrets, and makes drastic efforts to solve a complicated case. Only this time, the entire existence of civilization is on the line.
During this heavy time of COVID-19, it might be assumed many distressed humans would be looking to distract themselves with light reading material, but the sales numbers on certain dark subject matters say otherwise. It is no coincidence that numbers on books about disease have skyrocketed. The End of October is currently at the top of New York Times bestseller’s list, not an easy accomplishment, even given Wright’s reputation as a writer. There is no doubt that the similarities between Wright’s work of fiction, and our current disaster are the reasons why so many are compelled to this novel. The medical and scientific information in The End of October, especially the primary access into the mind of a brilliant young doctor, expands the reader’s knowledge on the details of how pandemics affect humans in our society. It is clear that current readers wish to comfort themselves via reading relevant information, because it gives them a further understanding of the situation at hand, no matter how unpleasant.
The most compelling and believable parts of the novel are toward the beginning, with sharp gripping dialogue and a sympathetic protagonist. The scenes depicting the Parson family’s peaceful and docile home life, as a contradiction to Henry’s chaotic and disturbing situation across the globe, makes it all the more creepy and effective when everything starts to unravel. For example, while Henry splatters himself in blood when dissecting a dead body in the Middle East, his wife is teaching a third grade class about dinosaurs in Georgia. Another crucial aspect of the novel is the global resistance to a necessary quarantine by many world rulers, as they are afraid of the effects on the convenience of civilian’s personal lives, fear to harm the economy, and have an aversion to breaking the status quo. As the plot line unfolds, the fate of the human race becomes increasingly devastating and hard to read, yet even harder to look away. Thoroughly researched, The End of October sheds necessary insight and information to our current desperate situation.
Written in 1947 after the height of World War II, Albert Camus’ The Plague is meant to be an allegory about the Nazis invading Paris. Camus was a highly renowned Nobel Prize winning philosopher, author and journalist from France. He is known for his works on nihilism and the human condition. The Plague is similar to The End of October, because it is narrated from the perspective of a young doctor, Bernard Rieux, who is fascinated with death, and simply wants to help people. Also an Atheist, Rieux does not have the privilege of relying on the thought of a higher power or afterlife to comfort him as he is faced with daily grizzly deaths. Thoughtfully written and enticing at every turn, Camus’s The Plague speaks on how human’s ignorance and selfishness can so casually let a deadly force slip under their radar. As Camus states, “What’s true of all evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves”.
Although not at the top of The New York Times list, Camus’ The Plague has also seen a high increase in sales as well, according to publishers. While 226 copies were sold in February of 2019, a whopping 2,156 copies had been sold in March 2020, including 1,504 in one week alone. A classic in French literature, winning a Nobel Prize, The Plague offers a blend of fiction and historical allegory. Camus’ metaphors about how a phenomenon can overtake society, especially in the presence of denial and human selfishness, are incredibly poignant and telling in the year 2020. It is no question that readers are drawn to Camus’ eerie message, because it is enough to help awaken society to their misdeeds, helping readers learn from their mistakes.
The Plague is a powerful and chilling novel that is highly relevant to 2020. This is because it follows themes of denial and indifference, especially when it comes to how the human population reacts to the clear threat of a mysterious and unnamed plague. Although humans are dropping dead by the dozens, citizens of France are determined to “hear no evil” when it comes to the drastic reports on the plague, because they are married to their current routines and do not wish to be disturbed. However, it is soon apparent that the desire for convenience comes at the risk of human lives, and highly contributes to preventable suffering. The historical allegory in this case of the Nazi invasion effectively translates to our pandemic situation. Hitler’s regime functions as a hidden virus that slowly but fatally creeps into society, overtaking the lives of many by surprise, while their backs are turned because they are preoccupied with their lives, leaving them unable to react or escape in time. One of the most moving aspects of the novel is the depiction of a human’s innate desire to resist death, even though it is inevitable, and not even something as powerful and science can fight it.
Overall, the mere existence of COVID-19 requires a variety of coping strategies, the exact methods depending on the person. Although many might see dark and desperate times as an excuse to run and hide behind escapism and fluffy fiction, it is apparent that many are choosing to face the harsh realities of life head on, by exposing themselves to relevant information, no matter how scary it may be. The unprecedented rising sales of three prominent books about pandemics, The End of October, The Great Influenza, and The Plague, attest to this theory. Although tragic and devastating for many, we are drawn to learning about viruses, because they make bold statements as to how the human race has progressed as a whole. As Wright states in The End of October “The most surprising feature of viruses was that they were a guiding force behind evolution. We wouldn’t be who we are without them”. Humans are drawn to thrill and excitement, and want to inform themselves as much possible in order to learn from their mistakes. Reading is an effective measure to come to terms with these truths, and it is not necessarily always going to be easy, fun, or pleasant.