Literature helps us make sense of the world, especially in times of turmoil. Here are some books (and films, and podcasts) that Elon English Department faculty recommend during COVID-19.
Quarantine Essentials: If you can only read one book during the pandemic, choose one of these.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)*
A flu-like pandemic wipes out most of humanity; a traveling theatre troupe makes meaning out of what remains.
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993) (eBook link)
In this dystopian classic, a young woman with “hyperempathy”–extreme sensitivity to other people’s pain–struggles to survive in a 2020s Los Angeles that has been ravaged by climate change and social conflict.
Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (2014)*
An unknown (potentially alien) plague slowly spreads over an area in North America, transforming DNA and creating human/plant hybrids.
Colson Whitehead, Zone One (2012)*
This zombie apocalypse narrative doubles as a sociological study on urban anomie with Lower Manhattan divided into various Zones relative to rates of infection, contagion, and zombie infestation. Whitehead’s elaborately nested structure and sharp eye for satire (including a U.S. population that suffers from the new clinical category PASD, i.e., Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder) is required reading for our current crisis.
Contagion Classics: Real (or at least Realistic) Plague and Pestilence in Literature
Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) (link)*
The Black Death sweeps London; the narrator watches it pass over. People cling to magical thinking or religion instead of rational thought; the resiliency of the social fabric is tested; and the value of human life, in the face of epic loss, is questioned. Published three centuries ago, the novel highlights many of the same trends we’re watching play out now.
William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (1937)
A sensitive, beautifully observed account of the 1918 influenza pandemic told primarily through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy (Part I) and his thirteen-year-old brother (Part II).
Albert Camus, The Plague (French 1947, English 1948)
A classic novel about what the Wall Street Journal recently called “the literary calamity closest to the current world-wide pandemic”: the story of a disease that decimates a North African city and the chaos that follows.
Jill Walsh, A Parcel of Patterns (1983)
A children’s novel that chronicles the real-life village in England that quarantined itself to stop the plague from spreading further.
Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001)
Based on the true story of the English village that quarantined itself to prevent the plague from getting out of their borders and infecting others.
Louise Erdrich, The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)*
Epidemics go with the territory in Native American literature, given the infections imported by Anglo-Europeans that decimated tribes with no immunity to diseases common among the invaders. Erdrich writes about the Ojibwe. The smallpox epidemic and Spanish influenza are central to the plot of this novel.
Louise Erdrich, LaRose (2016)*
Traumas past and present (including tuberculosis) shape this story of tradition, grief, family, and atonement in North Dakota.
Lawrence Wright, The End of October (forthcoming 2020)
Wright’s eerily timely forthcoming novel imagines a coronavirus-like outbreak in the U.S during the spring of 2020 that originates in Asia and rampages across the world – “…overwhelming health-care systems, forcing schools to close and citizens to shelter in place, and plunging the global economy into ruin. At one point, a government official informs a colleague that the United States only has enough ventilators to accommodate a fraction of the people who need them” (Vulture).
Speculative Pandemics: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Allegory
Stephen King, The Stand (1978)*
When the U.S. government loses control of its Project Blue bioweapons program, a “superflu” accidentally decimates 99.4% of the world’s population. With a handful of survivors left to fight over the ruins (think Walking Dead-style factionalism), the author balances relentless action with quasi-allegorical commentary on then-current debates about the depressed economy, pollution, oil shortages, and the Cold War. In addition to imagining what total catastrophe might look like on a granular level (infrastructural, governmental, interpersonal, etc.), King’s critique of the American addiction to technology still holds up even if some of the 70s-specific material doesn’t. Uncanny and essential in post-COVID 2020.
José Saramago, Blindness (Portuguese 1995, English 1997)
A beautiful and stark novel by a Portuguese author who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998 that describes a mass epidemic of blindness, which affects most people, and the societal effects that follow.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003)*
A bioengineered plague wipes out humanity. The novel grapples with whether the human race has a future – and whether it should, considering the wanton destruction and suffering it has caused.
Joshua Cohen, Witz: The Story of the Last Jew on Earth (2010)
Cohen’s near-future Holocaust satire imagines a world in which the world’s Jewish population—here called the “Affiliated”—is wiped out by a mysterious plague overnight. Along with all first-born males, protagonist and gentle giant Benjamin Israelien inexplicably survives only to be imprisoned at an Ellis Island detention facility while the Gentile population “brings back” Judaism as a popular trend. A throwback to Mega-novels of the 1960s and 70s, Cohen’s 800-page doorstop is a marvel of Joycean word-play and comic surrealism.
Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies (2013)
A strange epidemic, two wealthy families, and two dead star-crossed lovers set the conditions for Herrera’s neo-noir pastiche of Romeo & Juliet and Pulp Fiction. Organized crime “fixer” the Redeemer is sent to investigate and learns more about the legacy of violence in modern Mexico than he bargained for.
Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff, Illuminae (2015)*
A science fiction YA thriller with corporate graft, space travel, a worryingly sentient computer, AND a plague.
Cabin Fever Fiction: Stories of Quarantine and Confinement
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1927)
One of the most revered works of 20th-century German literature, Mann’s epic “novel of ideas” tells the story of Hans Castorp, a young German engineer who visits a cousin recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps and is himself infected and forced to take up lodging there. Castorp remains in the diseased atmosphere of Haus Berghof for seven years, debating the decline of European culture and feverishly mediating the eccentric opinions of his fellow patients-in-residence–each of whom embodies a particular philosophical position in the Western humanist tradition.
Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
This neo-Gothic narrative tells the story of the Blackwood girls—adventurous Merricat and introverted Constance—who occupy a sprawling family estate on the outskirts of a provincial village. The last of their clan due to a mysterious dinnertime poisoning that killed their parents and permanently disabled their Uncle Julian, the two “orphans” may know more about the family tragedy than they are letting on. Recently adapted and streaming on Amazon Prime.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1966)
A chilling account of health care under the Soviet police state, set in the cancer wing of a provincial Russian hospital. Based on the author’s own experiences, in which he was given a one-in-three chance of survival, this widely suppressed allegory also comments on the brutality of the Gulags and the yearning for religious life under Communism.
Georges Perec, Things: A Story of the Sixties (1967)*
Perec’s social critique of consumerism satirizes the commodity fetishism of a young couple by focusing entirely on the décor and objets d’art in their apartment—rendered in outrageously hyperbolic and claustrophobic detail. Perec’s message couldn’t be more timely in the age of Amazon: how easy it is to lose ourselves in stuff.
Max Frisch, Man in the Holocene (1979)*
The Swiss novelist’s late masterpiece relates the story of aged pensioner Herr Geiser, whose paranoid speculations about a possible landslide threatening his secluded home lead to a nervous breakdown of sorts. Frisch’s novel examines the fears that exacerbate the loneliness of old age and its potential disconnections from the modern world.
E.L. Doctorow, Homer & Langley (2009)
Doctorow reimagines the true story of the late, pathologically reclusive Collyer brothers, found amid 120 tons of junk lining the walls of their sprawling NYC apartment in 1941. The compulsive hoarders had amassed a “collection” including the frame of a Model T Ford, 25,000 books, eight live cats, human organs pickled in jars of formaldehyde, and floor-to-ceiling stacks of old newspapers “booby-trapped” to fall on intruders.
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018)
A faux memoir set in the waning months of 2000, Moshfegh’s narrator is a narcissistic twenty-something Columbia grad whose charmed life is complicated by the death of her parents and subsequent desire to embark on a chemically-induced hibernation. She emerges from this self-medicated odyssey in the summer of 2001 to an NYC (and U.S. at large) on the verge of catastrophic change.
Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954)*
“Last man on earth” Robert Neville spends his days seeking a cure to the outbreak of a virus that has killed most of the population and turned the rest of its survivors into vampires. A key influence on the zombie apocalypse genre (The Omega Man and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series in particular), Matheson’s novel was also adapted into a popular movie starring Will Smith.
FILM: 28 Days Later (dir. Danny Boyle, 2002) [Hulu video streaming]
An infection causes humans to experience rage and act like zombies. Really well-shot, and more interested in the biological aspect than most zombie films.
Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006)
Written as a collection of oral histories from different correspondents in various countries, World War Z offers a fascinating depiction of geopolitics as different nations respond to a pandemic that results in the zombification of humans. By representing the different responses of varying nations, this well-written zombie novel offers an interesting point of comparison with the way current outbreaks have unfolded.
M. R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts (2014)*
Written from the perspective of a young girl who is a zombie hybrid but doesn’t know it yet, this novel goes into detail about the dangerous fungi that cause the zombie outbreak. The novel was turned into a movie, which is not good, and it came from a short story by Carey, “Iphigenia in Aulis,” which is excellent (and full of references to fairy tales and Greek myths).
Ling Ma, Severance (2018)
Part satire on office politics and consumerism, part zombie apocalypse narrative, Ma’s novel recounts the outbreak of Shen Fever, a fungal infection originating in Shenzhen, China, that rips through the population so rapidly, media outlets decide to stop reporting it in order to avoid a panic. An eerily prescient work with respect to the rise in xenophobic sentiments that have accompanied the coronavirus’s outbreak, skepticism on both sides of the aisle about “whose facts are accurate,” and even the kind of pop culture listing seen in this recommendation thread!
The AIDS Crisis: The Pandemic Before COVID-19
If you are interested in learning more about art and the AIDS crisis, take Professor Scott Proudfit’s course “The AIDS Play.” For more information on how the course intersects with COVID-19, click here.
Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart (1985)*
Kramer’s thinly-veiled account of his critically important work with Gay Men’s Health Crisis and subsequent founding of ACT UP is framed through the story of alter-ego/NYC writer Ned Weeks. This fiercely moving polemic is one of the first dramatic works to examine the AIDS crisis.
Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and its Metaphors (1989)
These revelatory works illuminate how sickness is never just about sickness; discourse about illness (be it tuberculosis, AIDS, or COVID-19) is often actually about values, moral judgment, identity, prejudice, etc.
Tony Kushner, Angels in America (1991)*
The AIDS crisis, which wiped out a generation of gay men, is reinterpreted to mark the triumphant arrival of LGBTQ people to the American mainstream, and the resiliency of queer people (and people writ large) in the face of death.
David Wojnarowicz, In the Shadow of the American Dream (1998)
The posthumously published diaries of a legendary LGBTQ-activist, memoirist, and multimedia artist recount Wojnarowicz’s collaborative artistic process, innovative work with the ACT UP political action group, and courageous battle with the virus that would take his life at 37.
Film: We Were Here (dir. David Weissman, 2010) [Amazon Prime video streaming]
This remarkable documentary chronicles the impact of AIDS on San Francisco’s gay and lesbian community in the 1980s through first-person testimonials from the pandemic’s survivors. From powerful reflections on the pandemic’s onset to startling revelations about the early clinical trials for antiretroviral drug therapies, Weissman’s insightful and memorable film is an essential companion to drama and film on the subject.
Love in the Time of Coronavirus
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (Spanish 1985, English 1988)
Constantly quoted and adapted (as in the title of this section!), this novel is likely set in Colombia (never stated) and covers approximately 50 years of the lives–and unrequited love–of Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza. Cholera (and other diseases), deforestation, modernization, class, and race all create a backdrop to a complicated story of love, partnership, family, and aging. The one occurrence of a quarantine in the book might enable us to put a mirror to our own isolation.
Film: Perfect Sense (dir. MacKenzie 2011)
About a plague that slowly affects people’s senses one by one (so first everyone in the world loses hearing, then taste, etc.). Also a love story, and not as violent and scary as many pandemic films, but beautifully shot.
Diane Chamberlain, The Stolen Marriage (2017)
A historically-based romance set in Hickory, North Carolina, at a hospital constructed virtually overnight to combat the polio epidemic.
Richard Powers, The Overstory (2018)
This novel features major tree epidemics (Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight) and various instances of arboricide (Agent Orange, logging of national forests) in a wonderful, multi-layered story. You wouldn’t expect a novel about human/tree relationships to be funny, gripping, and sexy, but it definitely is. It should be required reading for a university named “Oak.”
Shorter Takes and Poetry
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) (link)*
Rich people party while attempting to hide from the plague. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go great.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)*
A short story about a supposedly ill woman confined to an attic room who slowly loses her mind.
Jack London, “The Unparalleled Invasion” (1910)
This story is racist but also relevant. Set in the future, the story depicts China having become such a large power that the rest of the world responds with biochemical warfare, bombing China with mosquitoes carrying horrible diseases. This problematic text and its xenophobic depiction of China offers a way to consider the racism that has cropped up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939)
In this set of three loosely-connected short novels, the eponymous one focuses on the 1918 flu epidemic, set amidst the war. Fun fact: Some might call this a collection of three novellas; however, Porter hated the term novella, describing it as a “slack, boneless, affected word.”
Stephen King, “Night Surf” (in the Night Shift story collection, 1978)*
An appetizer for those interested in The Stand’s premise but without a schedule that permits 1200 pages. “Night Surf” also takes place in the aftermath of a weaponized superflu, but where The Stand casts this apocalyptic scenario in epic terms, the short story is lyrical and elegiac: a vignette in which several teenagers congregate on a beach to wait out the end of the world.
Octavia Butler, “Speech Sounds” (1983)*
A short story about a plague that has taken people’s abilities to speak, read, and write, and how one woman in California deals with the aftermath. Brilliantly written, and ends on a hopeful note.
Shelter in Poems (link)*
The Academy of American Poets is asking people to share a poem that “helps to find courage, solace, and actionable energy, and a few words about how or why it does so.” You can also search the tag #ShelterInPoems on social media.
Non-Fiction: Disaster and Resilience
Priscilla Wald, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (2008)
A nonfiction analysis of our fascination with the “outbreak narrative,” how we as a society talk about contagious disease and those infected (starting with Typhoid Mary).
Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell (2010)*
This relevant, inspiring non-fiction book examines the ways that citizens and communities band together and (re)create better social systems during disasters, with case studies that include the San Francisco Earthquake, September 11, and Hurricane Katrina.
Patricia Fanning, Influenza and Inequality: One Town’s Tragic Response to the Great Epidemic of 1918 (2010) (eBook link)
Fanning reveals that an epidemic is not merely a medical crisis; it has sociological, psychological, and political dimensions as well. Influenza and Inequality examines these other dimensions and brings to life this terrible episode of epidemic disease by tracing its path through the town of Norwood, Massachusetts.
Nancy Bristow, American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (2012) (eBook link)
Bristow examines the social and cultural history of Americans during the 1918 pandemic, uncovering both the causes of the nation’s public amnesia and the depth of the quiet remembering that endured. This work focuses on the primary players in this drama–patients and their families, friends, and community, public health experts, and health care professionals.
Peter C. Doherty, Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know (2013) (eBook link)
A scientist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on how the immune system recognizes virus-infected cells offers an essential guide to pandemics. In concise question-and-answer format, he explains the causes of pandemics, how they can be counteracted with vaccines and drugs, and how we can better prepare for them in the future.
Erica Frydenburg, Coping and the Challenge of Resilience (2017) (eBook link)
This work addresses how best to meet everyday challenges. Frydenburg focuses on how to think and act differently about what we do as we face challenges, and how to assess each situation as one of challenge rather than threat or harm because we have the strategies to cope.
Jennifer Eberhart, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think, and Do (2018)*
This is the 2020-2021 Common Reading, and it gives a little bit of perspective on the health and social inequities being uncovered during the pandemic. This will be an excellent bridge text for incoming students whose senior years of high school were upended by COVID-19 and who will/should be aware of the role that race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status played in determining who received care, who died, who recovered, and who was blamed for the outbreak.
Robert Webster, Flu Hunter: Unlocking the Secrets of a Virus (2018) (eBook link)
Webster’s life’s work has been studying viruses. He focuses on understanding the evolution of influenza viruses and how to control them. This book provides an account of the tenacious scientific detective work involved in revealing the secrets of this killer virus.
Other Media: Podcasts, Graphic Narrative, and Film
Film: The Seventh Seal (dir. Ingmar Bergman 1957) [Amazon Prime Video; Criterion Channel]
A medieval knight returns home from the Crusades to find most of the Danish countryside ravaged by the Black Death. Confronted by the Grim Reaper on a beach, he challenges Death to a game of chess—a wager that extends his life for the length of the film. Bergman’s existential nightmare is an art cinema masterpiece.
Film: The Andromeda Strain (dir. Robert Wise 1971) [Amazon Prime Video]
A satellite infected with a mysterious spore crashes to Earth and begins destroying the U.S. population. This influential precursor to The Stand also addresses a germ warfare program gone awry and the government misinformation campaign intended to contain it.
Film: Soylent Green (dir. Richard Fleischer 1973) [Amazon Prime Video]
In the year 2022, unchecked population growth leads to food shortages among 40 million New Yorkers, necessitating an aggressive rationing campaign. But what’s in those bright green, industrially processed protein wafers distributed to a starving public each evening? And how does it connect with the city’s booming euthanasia program for aging citizens?
Film: Shivers (dir. David Cronenberg 1975) [Amazon Prime Video]
Horror maestro David Cronenberg’s debut is set inside the antiseptically clean and modern Starliner Towers, a self-sufficient high-rise apartment complex with the infrastructure of a small community. A parasite that was originally developed to replace diseased organs goes rogue in this space and transforms its human hosts into sexually violent sociopaths. Unsurprisingly, the claustrophobic (and casually promiscuous) world of the apartment complex provides the ideal vectors of contagion for the creature as the residents explode into a frenzy of sexual violence.
Film: Rabid (dir. David Cronenberg 1977) [Amazon Prime Video]
The second chapter in David Cronenberg’s loose “body horror” trilogy relates the tragic story of Rose, a motorcycle enthusiast whose life-threatening crash happens yards away from lunatic plastic surgeon Dr. Dan Keloid’s controversial clinic. Following an experimental skin graft, Rose develops a stinger-like appendage in her armpit that seeks out victims under the pretense of sexual intimacy. Once infected, victims spread this virulent strain of rabies across Greater Montreal in like fashion.
Film: Stalker (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky 1979) [Amazon Prime; Criterion Channel]
Tarkovsky’s visually stunning but glacially paced masterpiece takes place in an unidentified Eastern European principality during the waning stages of the Soviet Empire. An outlaw guide, or “stalker,” leads a writer and professor on an expedition into the Zone, a treacherous area of overgrown, strangely sentient land which has been cordoned off by the government. Their destination is a Room said to have the power to fulfill one’s innermost desire. Shot close to a toxic chemical plant, the film’s evocative power is enhanced by its uncanny prefiguring of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster seven years later and its irradiated, ghostly exclusion zone.
Graphic Novel: Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, Our Cancer Year (1994)*
Married “comics journalist” team Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar recount Harvey’s year-long battle with lymphoma. A spare, unsentimental account of cancer survival that is essential reading for patients and caregivers alike. Adapted as the popular independent film American Splendor.
Graphic Novel: Charles Burns, Black Hole (2005)*
Burns’s STD-allegory examines teen angst in the grim mid-1970s with a twist: the sinister infection passing between students at a local high school is called “the Bug” and its symptoms (the appearance of odd orifices, molting skin, and vestigial tails) don’t respond to conventional treatments. (Pairs well with Cronenberg!)
Podcast: Naomi Alderman, The Walk (2018)
The Premise: the listener is the protagonist given a headset and sent on a mission to deliver a mysterious package. Instructions, context, and commentary (i.e. the podcast) are given to you by a number of supporting characters. Each episode is only about 15 minutes (i.e. just the time you need for a short walk). Much of Scotland (and the rest of the world) is sheltering in place through the course of this podcast–so you, the walker, are always being hunted. The design is not flawless, but the plot is both episodic and twisty.
- For links to Elon Library’s collection of eBooks, click here.
- If you can’t find the book through Elon, check your local public library’s website. Many libraries have access to thousands of popular eBooks. You might even be able to register online if you don’t already have a library card.
- For the National Emergency Library, which offers thousands of free online books, click here.
*Taught by Elon English Department faculty. These works appear across English Department courses, from “Art at the End of the World” to “Stephen King” to “The AIDS Play” to “Science Fiction.” To find out which class to take to study a given work, email Dr. Erin Pearson.