The Publishing World is ‘Plagued’ With These Books

CoronavirusWith the coronavirus wreaking havoc throughout the world — and American “leader” Donald Trump predictably responding to that pandemic in the most incompetent, empathy-lacking, and self-serving way imaginable — it would be understandable if book lovers would want to read only escapist fiction for a while. But if you’re a glutton for punishment, there are some very compelling novels out there with pandemic themes — many pessimistic about the situation and the reaction to it, others a bit more optimistic.

The first book that comes to mind is Albert Camus’ riveting The Plague (1947), about a pandemic sweeping Algeria when it was a French colony. An excellent novel that includes existential and allegorical elements.

More than 100 years earlier, there was Mary Shelley’s tremendous The Last Man (1826) — not well-received at the time but now considered a classic. Set in the late 21st century, the plague-ridden novel includes three major characters based on the author herself (albeit in a male role), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Mary’s poet husband who died in 1822), and Lord Byron.

The pandemic in Margaret Atwood’s absorbing, depressing, yet often surprisingly funny Oryx and Crake (2003) is caused by genetic experimentation and pharmaceutical engineering. There are two sequels, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam.

Among other novels in the pandemic-fiction category are Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

In the short-story realm, one of Edgar Allan Poe’s best tales, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), looks at how the reveling rich think they can escape the plague. They can’t.

At its tragic peak, the AIDS crisis was a massive pandemic, and among the novels that have skillfully dealt with it are John Irving’s In One Person (2012) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998).

Your “favorite” pandemic fiction?

And if you want to discuss how the coronavirus crisis is affecting you, please do. In my case, my professor wife is teaching online instead of in person for the rest of the semester, my younger daughter and her classmates will be home for at least the next two weeks getting remote instruction from her middle school, we postponed an April family trip to that daughter’s native Guatemala, and my local library is closed until at least the end of March. (Yikes — I might run out of novels to read!)

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about my town’s upcoming election, its response to the coronavirus, and more — is here.

72 thoughts on “The Publishing World is ‘Plagued’ With These Books

  1. Anthony Burgess’ The Wanting Seed”(1962) is primarily concerned with a future world reeling and reordered around the effects of over-population, which just now, seems like a better outcome than what we’ve got on hand, and so, may not deserve the description ‘dystopian’, which historically has been attached to the book. There is, however, a mysterious blight that destroys much of the world’s food supply,and inspires more than a wee bit of the old cannibalism, so if a bit tangentially, “The Wanting Seed” deserves mention under this week’s general topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! “The Wanting Seed” definitely fits this topic somewhat, and you offered a very interesting glance at that novel. Seems like readers will not find their “happy place” in many Burgess books, but he was an excellent writer.

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  2. Pingback: The Publishing World is ‘Plagued’ With These Books — Dave Astor on Literature | Darling Talks

  3. I am sufficiently distracted now by virus concerns that I may have missed mention of this in another’s comment, but in case I didn’t: Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” deserves mention, given our week’s topic, not so much for the tales it contains but for its (in the words of the wikipedia authors’ phrase) ‘frame story’.

    from wikipedia:
    “The Decameron, subtitled Prince Galehaut and sometimes nicknamed l’Umana commedia (“the Human comedy”), is a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived of The Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353.” The Decameron inspired Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” to the degree that he copied a few of Boccaccio’s tales into his book.

    Another ‘frame story’: I don’t recall just when, but I think I’ve written about this twice here over the years: The Greek author Nikos Kozantzakis and his fellow citizens were suffering the scourge of another of the Four Horsemen, Famine, imposed by German occupation during WWII, a time when the Greek harvest was largely commandeered. Many thousands died. The Kazantzakis household also lacked fuel, so he and they spent most of their day and all of their nights in bed under piles of blankets and coats, occasionally gathering to eat what little they had. Kazantzakis sat propped up with paper and pen, and in that chill and time of want wrote the irrepressible, life-affirming and sunny novel “Zorba the Greek”.

    Yet another ‘frame story’: During one of the last plagues to strike England, Isaac Newton and his fellow students were sent home from Cambridge, and in his time away, Newton developed calculus, which as I understand it, is not a plague, though based on my very brief exposure to it, it can certainly produce headaches and confusion.

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    • Thank you, jhNY, for mentioning “The Decameron”! That work was indeed not previously brought up under this blog post, although Donny Backes Jr. (who used to comment here) mentioned it in on my Facebook page a few days ago when I linked to the post there. Interesting that Chaucer was inspired by it and cribbed some of it!

      Two fascinating frame stories. Amazing what can be created sometimes under dire circumstances.

      As for taking calculus, I was luckily spared that. Sorry you were briefly exposed… 😦

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  4. Dave, Great post as always. I have been revisiting the Martian Chronicles and the story of the Martians having all died because of chickenpox brought by the astronauts (similar history of Native American and smallpox) kinda fit the bill re: pandemics. And then I was discussing with my husband our shared experiences concerning the polio pandemic, remembering getting vaccinated in my elementary school lunchroom. Geezaloo, what chaos that was! Waiting in line with my classmates, some of them whimpering knowing they were going to get a shot, some of them bawling their eyes out, really rather bizarre. Yet a friend of my brothers dad had contracted polio and was crippled, spent some time in an iron lung. At my daughter’s middle school they had an iron lung on display In the library, donated by one of their teachers. A grim reminder to me though an oddity to my daughter and her friends. So I have been reading about polio survivor stories on a website called vaxopedia. Yet it is a dark stroll down memory lane, and I feel like I’m whistling past the graveyard as is, so I decided to go in a totally different direction and am currently reading Nietzsche Thus Spake Zarathustra, ha! here’s link to website re: polio survivor stories, very interesting how many people had polio and survived, well known, e.g. Joni Mitchell, Mia Farrow, even Mitch McConnell whose story reveals that even as a kid he was a jerk, go figure. https://vaxopedia.org/2017/10/22/polio-survivor-stories/

    I’m surprised your library doesn’t offer hoopla, but it limits you to only 5 books a month anyhoo. Here’s to everybody’s good health. Susi

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susi! Excellent comment.

      “The Martian Chronicles” is a great example of a novel with a pandemic element, and the Native-American comparison is very apt. Glad you mentioned that Ray Bradbury book, which I liked a lot.

      Very interesting reflections on the polio scourge. My wife’s father’s first wife died of it. 😦 And Mitch McConnell is indeed such a jerk that I’m not surprised he was a jerk as a kid.

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    • I love my local library, but I don’t rely on it as I have most books electronically.

      Having said that, a friend advised that she was allowed to borrow 40 books and they’re not due back until May. I’m so glad they were able to organise something like that BEFORE they closed 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Susan, I still read novels in the old-fashioned print format, but going the eBook route definitely has some advantages — especially these days with many libraries temporarily closed.

        Forty books? Wow! I wish my local library had given decent notice of its closing. I wouldn’t have borrowed 40 books, but maybe 10… 🙂

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        • Our public spaces aren’t actually closed yet. I got the feeling that maybe they were trying to empty the shelves before they were closed. It’s normally a 4-week lending period so it’s nice to see that that’s been extended. I guess some people have had more warning than others. I feel for people who are having to close businesses with no warning. Such an unpredictable time for all of us.

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  5. Maybe my M.Sc thesis, riveting subject of, er, economic and social consequences, or was it aftermath, of pandemic…
    No, seriously, Journal of the Plague Year, Not La Peste, which was a set book. Pepys’ characteristic response to 1665 (and so to bed, with someone else’s wife) Not exactly social distancing ?
    Too soon to evaluate a children’s book, Skara, by Daniel Jones, free today…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, catonthedovrefell! Ha — I’m sure your thesis was great!

      I found Camus’ “The Plague” pretty gripping, although it was of course by no means a perfect novel.

      Yes, not exactly social distancing from Pepys. More like antisocial non-distancing…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: The Publishing World is ‘Plagued’ With These Books — Dave Astor on Literature – mbereko

  7. What a fascinating topic, Dave. How do you come up with these new ideas each week? 😉

    I’ve thought about The Stand a few times over the last couple of weeks. I’ve read it three or four times, and each time, I seem to get the sniffles. I know I’m not on my own there as friends have had similar experiences. It’s almost like sneezing is a perquisite for reading the book so that it scares the cr@p out of you even more!

    I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d live through an almost real life version. Of course, it’s doubtful that this plague will kill 98% of the population, and even if it does, I doubt the remaining few will be caught in a good vs evil apocalyptic battle. But still… every time I feel a tickle in my throat I wonder if this is the start…

    I’m glad to know that it’s a comfort to you that Tom Hanks and his wife were diagnosed here in Australia where you don’t need a credit card to get through a hospital door. But at least your leader had the nerve to get tested. Our leader (who hides in Hawaii during bushfires) refuses to be tested, despite one of his cabinet testing positive. He also decided that gatherings of more than 500 people is dangerous and unnecessary… as of Monday… after his big church meeting and his football team’s first game of the season.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave, sometimes when I’ve run out of work to do in the afternoon, I’ll randomly read through some old blogs. Instead of just trying to read them randomly, I’ll read the next one after today’s date from each of the years. The next topic after 18th March 2016? “Apocalypse Now”! Including this little paragraph – “Speaking of short stories, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is also pretty darn human-race-is-in-big-trouble.” I’ve just put this book on my TBR after MB’s praise and realising that I’ve somehow never read Poe before!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! A pandemic theme was the proverbial “no-brainer” this week. 🙂

      “The Stand” is definitely a major example of pandemics in literature. I would have devoted more space to that novel, but it has been a very long time since I read it — once, not three or four times like you. I absolute understand feeling phantom symptoms when reading a novel like that (or, nowadays, when thinking about the coronavirus). Yes, in the case of “The Stand,” that adds to the horror. And, yes again, real life won’t be as bad as in that book, even as things are bad enough.

      There are certainly plenty of negative things to say about Australia’s leader. His response to the devastating fires, and to climate change in general, was and is appalling. And it sounds like his “appallingness” is continuing. In terms of getting tested, Trump lies so goddamn often that millions of Americans are not even sure whether to believe he really got tested.

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  8. Living in stricken Manhattan, having the corona virus near-constantly on my mind, it’s hard to think about books on the general topic of pandemic or its l’il bro, epidemic. But in the interest of adding new works to your list, I recall Antonin Artaud had employed the plague as metaphor and inspiration for experimental theater in “The Theater and Its Double”.

    And an American author, Brockden Brown, writing in the late 18th century, produced a novel, “Arthur Merwyn; or Memoirs of the Year 1793”, which takes place in Philadelphia and contains scenes of a yellow fever epidemic. I bought a book containing three of Brown’s gothic novels last year, fully intending to read them. For now I firmly intend to avoid “Merwyn” at least, and hope to live to read another day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Yes, Manhattan, like many (smaller) big cities with a number of coronavirus cases, is a tough place to be these days. For one thing, a person can’t easily take a walk while still “social distancing.”

      Two very interesting mentions of two fictional works! In some cases in literature, a pandemic can indeed be metaphor as well as what it is.

      I’m about to start “She,” sometime today or tomorrow! And I’m still waiting for that longish car ride (temporarily not happening in these mostly stay-at-home days) to listen to a certain CD…

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  9. “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart. Against the backdrop of crumbling civilization, the protagonist seeks other survivors after the plague has wiped out most other inhabitants. Written in 1949, this post-apocalyptic novel inspired Stephen King’s “The Stand”.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dave, this is the time to catch up with reading, I have plenty of bood I could read or revisit .

    Just yesterday afternoon,, in Kroger parking lot as I was walking to the store, one woman in a large van with tinted glass, almost ran over me, another woman coming out from the store started screaming at her, then she rolled her window down and apologised.

    She should count her blessings that she is not in police custody .

    Liked by 1 person

  11. As a huge Edgar Poe fan, I am very familiar with Masque of the Red Death – it’s one of my favorite stories of his. Plague has always been an emotional conflict with me – It’s interesting to study but horrifying to think about. I haven’t read many fictional works, but I have read a lot of nonfiction and medical works about influenza and black plague in particular. In one of the books I’m writing, the 1918-19 pandemic makes an appearance. These times are a bit scary, for sure. I live in LA and most everything has been ordered to close, except grocery stores, and restaurants can serve take out or delivery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Yes, “The Masque of the Red Death” is a great Poe story — with a big dollop of hubris by the rich of that tale’s time period.

      The 1918-19 flu pandemic was enormous, and I can see how it would be both interesting and horrifying for you to read about it, research it, and write about it.

      Sounds like LA has many of the drastic but necessary restrictions of other places. Good luck to you and yours!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Not a topic I would normally choose, Dave, although I do remember reading “Masque of the Red Death,” years ago when I was on a Poe kick. My library is still open (last I checked), but all meetings are cancelled. Too much of my time was already spent online, and I will certainly miss my in-person reading club and writing critique groups. Be safe, everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Becky! Yes, an unwelcome topic indeed. 😦 (I originally had a different topic for this week, but postponed it.)

      I’ve also read most of Poe’s stories — first when I was a teen before revisiting them six or seven years ago — and many are brilliant. “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Premature Burial,” “MS. Found in a Bottle”…

      Glad your library is still open. Totally understand why meetings have been canceled.

      You make a great point — many of us (myself included) are online too much, and this crisis exacerbates that. Still, it’s nice that the digital realm allows for virtual social interaction during this crazy time.

      Be safe, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I was physically present at our church today, though I was the only person present at our weekly adult education class there before worship. But I had an excellent discussion with myself. May all pandemics pass so quickly that no one else will want to write a novel about them.

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    • “May all pandemics pass so quickly that no one else will want to write a novel about them” — I love that line, Bill!

      Ha, yes, more opportunities these days for people to talk with themselves. But, seriously, tough to lose so much social interaction. 😦

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      • Did you get caught in the mad rush to buy toilet paper, Dave? I have never seen anything like it!!! I saw an older woman at the grocery store swearing it was all a hoax to drive up prices. I assured her it was not a hoax and that the empty shelves were caused by a bunch of fools who wanted to make sure THEY have everything they need at the expense of everybody else.

        Liked by 1 person

        • lulabelle, I was doing the general weekly food shopping, and there wasn’t a roll of toilet paper to be found. I agree — that kind of hoarding is just plain selfish. 😦

          I saw an article today about a couple of disgusting guys who bought up thousands of bottles of sanitizer to sell online at huge markups. After many complaints, Amazon, eBay, etc., blocked them from using the sites and now they’re stuck. Serves them right…

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  14. Dave, I don’t recall reading any of the books you mentioned, or I’ve forgotten them if I ever did. I do however remember a couple of films that are applicable to this discussion. One is the great 1993 movie about AIDS, starring Tom Hanks (somewhat ironically, as he has been a central figure in the coronavirus epidemic). It was such a compelling, but heartbreaking film, and I was weeping at the end. It also featured the wonderful song, “The Streets of Philadelphia,” by Bruce Springsteen. While there have been advances in treatment (even recently several patients were cured of the HIV infection), there still is a ways to go with treating this horrible virus.

    Another film, not nearly as great as “Philadelphia,” is “Outbreak” from 1995. It wasn’t based on the book “Outbreak” by Robin Cook, though somewhat similar, and I’ve read it was loosely based on the book “The Hot Zone,” by Richard Preston. The movie has a terrific cast: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. It starts off being quite interesting in the way it is transmitted by a monkey in Africa to one town in California, then it gets rather crazy at the end. I own this on DVD, so I may pull it out and watch it again.

    As for me, I’m not feeling panicked about what’s going on now, but it’s rather unsettling to say the least. It’s necessary to read and listen to all that is going on locally and globally, but it gets tiresome after a while and upsetting to listen to the White House, especially our “dear leader.” I am so grateful to those leaders who’ve been taking this seriously and doing what’s right from the beginning, as hard as it must be for everyone. And of course thanks to our nurses, doctors and other medical personnel for all you do every day! 🙂 . Hope everyone here is OK and stays that way!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! The “Philadelphia” movie was indeed great and poignant, as was Bruce Springsteen’s song. Yes, ironic, that the film’s star, Tom Hanks, now has the coronavirus. A small silver lining is that he and his wife Rita Wilson were diagnosed in Australia, one of the many countries with a more humane medical system than the profit-driven mess in the U.S.

      Wow — what a cast in that “Outbreak” film!

      “Unsettled” rather than “panicked” is a good way to describe many people’s reaction to the coronavirus. And, as you allude to, one of the various reasons to feel unsettled is the abysmal “leadership” of Trump in this instance (and in all things). Almost every other country has an advantage in that respect in fighting this disease.

      Health personnel definitely deserve profuse thanks.

      And, like you, I hope everyone here is okay and will continue to be okay.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s too bad about your library being closed. I’m on my last library book right now, but so far, the county library hasn’t said they are closing. Even if they do, I’ve got plenty to read, including many books to reread, which I enjoy doing. I’m thinking about the entire collection of Agatha Christie sitting on my shelf. Or, as Elena and you noted, there’s always Jane Austen!

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  15. Thinking it might be finally time to read “Love in the Time of Cholera.” Unfortunately I’m scrambling to transition to an all-online format for my classes—after having my request to teach in that format as a disability accommodation denied less than a year ago. Ah well…

    As for plague-books to read, Alexander Pushkin was trapped at his family estate of Boldino in the fall of 1830 because of a cholera epidemic. He produced some of his most wonderful works then, including “A Feast in Time of Plague,” one of his Little Tragedies. Highly, highly recommend!

    I, meanwhile, am listening to an audiobook version of “Emma,” because you can never go wrong with Jane Austen.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Elena! Sorry about the scramble to transition to online teaching — my wife has also been trying to get the hang of that this weekend. Ironic, and absolutely wrong, that you were denied that same option less than a year ago. 😦

      I liked but didn’t love “Love in the Time of Cholera” (“Like in the Time of Cholera”?), but it’s well worth reading.

      Just put “A Feast in Time of Plague” on my list! I’m definitely planning to read more Pushkin, also including “Eugene Onegin” — which, as you know, Elisabeth has been skillfully discussing on her “Russian Affair” blog in recent weeks.

      Yes, Jane Austen is always worth reading — or listening to. “Emma” is probably my fifth favorite of her novels (after “Persuasion,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and “Mansfield Park”), but it’s still excellent. 🙂

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    • Thank you, lulabelle! I’m sure you do, and very kind of you to offer. 🙂 I should be fine. I have a couple more unread books after I finish the one I’m reading now, and then I can always buy a novel or two — which I usually try to avoid because my apartment is so crammed. 🙂

      If my local library had given more notice Friday before shutting down for the month, I would have gone there and taken out a bunch of books. But I found out when I was on a VERY long check-out line at the supermarket a half hour before the library closed.

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  16. Brilliant post for our time of uncertainty and ambiguity. Books help us to understand complex problems and reflect upon our individual responses. I am almost finished with “Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson”
    by Mark Bourrie. At one point Radisson was in London during the time of the plague which provided a eye-opening view of a city that was in the grasp of wide-spread fear. It was believed that dogs and cats were the carriers of the disease, the very animals that would be able to keep the rats in check. I am grateful for those health care workers who are on the front lines of Covid19. I am inspired by their courage, diligence and commitment to our communities. Keep safe….

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother! Yes, books can really inspire readers to think about what you mentioned — including contemplating how we’d respond in a pandemic situation. Something we’re now getting practice at in real life. 😦

      “Bush Runner” sounds like quite a book! Nonfiction? That dog/cat/rat conundrum sounds like yet another example of how “leaders” often get things wrong during a crisis. Of course, back in that plague time there was a lot less scientific understanding. There isn’t as much of an excuse for dumb decisions nowadays.

      Yes, health professionals are absolutely heroic. I also have a lot of respect for employees working so hard at very crowded supermarkets.

      Keep safe, too!

      Liked by 3 people

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