Some people want an escape from the COVID crisis, while others might want to dive in a little deeper to find out more about similar points in history. In the best pandemic books, we first take a turn into fiction to see how writers have imagined situations in stories that draw on history or imagine new or future pandemic-affected realities. Then we turn to look at essential nonfiction pandemic books to learn more about key pandemics in history and what might be ahead.
Best Pandemic Books: Fiction
Blindness by José Saramago
An absolute plague literature classic and one of the best books about pandemics, Blindness invents a world where an epidemic sweeps the globe, robbing its victims of the crucial sense of sight. As chaos and criminal activity reign, the one person spared uses their eyesight to help lead people out of terror and into a better place.
A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen
It might not feel like it, but—fingers crossed, knock on wood—one day post-COVID life will get back to normal. And that’s exactly the concept Mike Chen explores in A Beginning at the End, a book set in the aftermath of a global pandemic that has decimated society and stolen countless lives. In the dawn of this age, a group of San Francisco–based survivors pick themselves up and start again. The problem: this fragile new normal might be under threat—again.
The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
In this astonishing debut novel, a plague sweeps through the continent. The illness leaves its victims with some powers, but also steals their memories. When Max develops the symptoms, she flees, leaving her husband Ory behind so the pandemic doesn’t swallow him, too. But Ory won’t give up that easily on the woman he loves, and so he embarks on a quest across the ruins to find her.
The End of October by Lawrence Wright
The newest novel on this list, The End of October was released earlier this year amidst the COVID pandemic. Wright, a nonfiction author known for his takedown on scientology, Going Clear, deftly manages the execution of this chillingly resonant and suspenseful story led by hero epidemiologist Dr. Henry Parsons, who finds himself at the center of a deadly outbreak.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
In this powerful novel, a National Book Award finalist, Rebecca Makkai has written an emotionally visceral, heartbreakingly poignant story that chronicles the effect of the AIDS epidemic on a tight cast of compelling characters whose fates—past, present, and future—are spun together.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Doubtless you’ve heard a variation on the title of this classic love story from Gabriel García Márquez. Originally published in 1985, the book tells the tale of two star-crossed young lovers whose relationship runs into trouble when the woman marries a prominent doctor fighting to stop cholera. But nothing can stop Florentino from pursuing Fermina, and he does until she’s a widow, hoping he’ll give her another chance. Cholera functions as a backdrop and a metaphor for so many things in this poetic novel, and one of the main characters is a physician trying to battle the illness. Years later, the couple find each other again…will they take another chance on love? The beautiful language and emotional story of this heartbreaking novel resonates even more right now.
The Rationing by Charles Wheelan
In The Rationing, Charles Wheelan crafts an all-too-plausible political satire. As a pandemic sweeps through the United States of America, the country’s political elite scramble to get the illness and the media story under control. Meanwhile, partisan divisions and competing ambitions affect the rationing of the prized live-saving drug to stop the crisis. Sound familiar?
Severance by Ling Ma
In this funny, irreverent debut, New York–based millennial Candace Chen somehow manages to avoid the plague terrorizing the world. Instead, Candace finds herself among a quirky group of survivors who try to rebuild. Ma’s gift for social satire set this enjoyable, character-driven pandemic novel apart.
Station Eleven By Emily St. John Mandel
If the world was as lush and dreamy as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, maybe nobody would mind risky pandemics. In this critically acclaimed novel, Mandel has built an intricate world where a band of actors roam a post-pandemic dystopian reality. Station Eleven offers a vital perspective of how art fundamentally matters to civilization.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
The legendary year 1666 is the year of wonders described in the title of this historical novel rich in period detail. It’s in this year that Anna Frith lives in a small village that self-quarantines to keep the plague away. Anna tries to stay alive amidst the community’s growing paranoia. Year of Wonders is a sobering and vivid immersion into another moment of time when a pandemic became a literal and existential threat.
Best Pandemic Books: Nonfiction
The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby
COVID is not the first pandemic to sweep America. In The American Plague, Molly Caldwell Crosby brings the lethal yellow fever epidemics that ravaged the country in its earliest years to life, all the way back to 1648 and the slave trade. Writing with the suspense of a mystery novel, The American Plague chronicles the medical efforts to stop and treat this deadly illness.
The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly
If you only read one book about the Black Death, otherwise known as the Great Plague, John Kelly’s The Great Mortality should be it. This comprehensive history of the pandemic traces how the illness gutted Europe and Asia and killed an estimated 25 million people. Kelly blends fact with storytelling to make the anxiety and panic of the plague feel real.
This authoritative history of the AIDS epidemic focuses on the activism on the ground that pushed to hold governments accountable and the movement within science and medicine that helped pivot to more research for finding adequate treatment.
Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney
You may have heard comparisons between the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 and today’s COVID crisis. In Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider, you’ll learn why these analogies feel so eerily true. Pale Rider is a highly readable deep dive into this global pandemic offering lessons and takeaways that give hope for our dark times.
Science writer Sonia Shah’s Pandemic is as riveting as a medical thriller and yet all too real. Reading Pandemic will help you better understand the forces at play when a pandemic moves into town. In particular, Pandemic is especially good at translating the erratic nature of a pandemic into something that spreads methodologically. Shah uses cholera as her main case study, but other pandemics like ebola and avian flu.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
David Quammen’s prophetic book Spillover is scarily relevant. Quammen goes deep inside pandemics that originate with animal infections, which are known as “spillover” illnesses. If you read just one book to understand how a virus like COVID grew, add Spillover to your TBR.
For more of the best pandemic books and medical writing in general, check out these posts: