I didn’t think I would do it so soon. But after I put together a list of books about the human side of COVID-19 for my library job, I decided to go ahead and read one myself. I started in on a young adult fiction anthology, Together, Apart, and marveled at how much it felt like home. You would think, after being inundated with Coronavirus news for the past year-plus, I — and everyone else — would be over it. If anything, I’d be looking for some book that would help me escape COVID-19. And if the availability of vaccines are any indication, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Why would I want to prolong my existence in these strange circumstances, even just mentally? Will people even want to read pandemic books in the future?
Reading Pandemic Books in the Midst of It
As we start to experience what seems to be the beginning of the end of COVID-19’s reign, some folks have been nostalgic about the earlier days of the pandemic. When the United States first started shutting down in March 2020, many towns, businesses, and other groups were sure life would be “back to normal” in two weeks. Two weeks of staying at home and we would be out of this mess. Those early days were full of Tiger King, sourdough starters, whipped coffee, and wiping down our groceries with sanitizing solutions. Folks on TikTok have posted videos about reminiscing about those early days, noting how even the weather is starting to feel like “early pandemic weather” and how certain sounds that were popular on TikTok around March and April 2020 evoke feelings of longing for that period of time.
Reading Together, Apart is sort of like hearing one of those TikTok sounds or revisiting Tiger King. In the short stories of the anthology, there’s uncertainty. From questions about how long the pandemic will last to confusion about what behavior and to what degree (like social distancing) is appropriate, the uncertainty in these stories reflect the reality for many of us in spring 2020. Characters feel scared, cooped up, and overwhelmed by the constant presence of the people with whom they live — and all of it feels so very familiar. It’s so familiar that, even though it describes a time of such uneasiness, it’s comforting.
As we emerge from (what seems to be) the worst of COVID-19, I think a lot of us are looking to each other for confirmation. Did that really just happen? Did we really just live a year inside? Did we really disrupt our lives in ways we never could have imagined pre-COVID-19? These stories document this surreal experience, both the reality of it and the emotional truth of it. Being reassured that this happened and that we shared this unusual experience and even felt similarly about it is one way to process the trauma of the experience. Reassurance by way of reading is ideal for some people, because if at any time the content is too much, they can put the piece down and return to it when they feel ready.
Perhaps more interestingly, reading pandemic books as the pandemic appears to wind down allows us to revisit beginning of the pandemic with hindsight and the knowledge that we made it through this far, and so we are able to enjoy the pleasures — Tiger King, sourdough starters, whipped coffee — that were less pleasures at the time and more distractions from the overwhelming fear and uncertainty prevalent in every minute of the day. A cup of whipped coffee now isn’t quite the same as it was back in March 2020, but we can still experience those first cups through reading about it.
In the coming months, as the more imminent threat of COVID-19 becomes something of the past and our lives return to the hustle and bustle we were used to before, I expect we’ll continue to see nostalgia for those early days. We’ll regret the time we spent hoarding toilet paper and obsessively cleaning doorknobs, while retreating to memories of sleeping in because you only had to make it to the couch instead of the office for your 9–5 and of daily walks outside. We’ll also enjoy stories about hoarding toilet paper and obsessively cleaning doorknobs because now, we have the benefit of safety. The only danger of running out of toilet paper is on the page, and we are comfortably distant from our own real, lived concerns. Meanwhile, those memories become all the more potent when we see them shared with others, whether through essays about life during the pandemic or fiction that takes place during the period.
Reading Pandemic Books in the Future
A year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, a hundred years from now, will we still feel this way and still read pandemic books?
I think so.
For those of us who lived through COVID-19, we’ll revisit pandemic books as reassurance and as stimulation. Yes, many of us have suffered from severe anxiety throughout this ordeal, but we are a species who enjoys stimulation, too. I don’t doubt that in some cases, like the thrill of a horror movie, the anxiety embedded in pandemic books will be a source of stimuli as we become more distanced from this time.
After living memories have gone, recorded material of the time will be all that remains of it. Though many of us have struggled with the mundaneness of living inside for a year-plus, the reality is, the COVID-19 pandemic was a major historical event. People of the future — and, indeed, people who will have been too young to remember the pandemic — will no doubt have interest in how we made it through on emotional and practical levels. Both nonfiction and fiction can serve as important and valid reflections of what it was like to live in the time of COVID-19.
Consider the popular children’s I Survived… series. As a former children’s librarian, I can tell you kids love these books. The chapter book series documents major historical events that (often) resulted in casualties — hence the title. In addition to stories about the Battle of Gettysburg and the destruction of Pompeii, I Survived also covers more recent events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Assuming the series is still published in five years or so, I’d expect to see I Survived the COVID-19 Pandemic on shelves then. Children’s literature loves a good historical disaster, no matter how dark — Nathan Hale has a popular graphic novel with Donner Dinner Party, detailing the unfortunate events of the ill-fated Donner Party. No topic is off limits; why would COVID-19 be?
But more than the event itself is the emotional truth and humanity of living through COVID-19. The CDC documented stories from the 1918 pandemic, noting, “The staggering statistics associated with pandemics sometimes makes it difficult to remember that each number represents a single, human life.” The Library of Congress did something similar with Stories from the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic from Ethnographic Collections, which also helps modern viewers conceptualize the pandemic by putting a human face and human words to the clinical, historical event. If there is interest in the 1918 Flu and other similar events today, why wouldn’t there be interest in the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly if — and when — another pandemic darkens our global doorstep?
Even writing about the pandemic years after it happened would not be strange. Published nearly 100 years after the beginning of the novel’s events, Love in the Time of Cholera may not strictly focus on the cholera outbreak of the late 1800s, but it does inform the story. Epidemics and pandemics can be useful plot devices even as they destroy real lives, helping to not only add conflict to a story, but also give the characters an opportunity to demonstrate resilience and other traits. Pandemics naturally make characters underdogs, a trope readers have loved since the beginning of time. As the underdogs of the COVID-19 pandemic, we make for fascinating characters and compel readers to seek stories about the pandemic.
It can be difficult to internalize history, and humanizing events through stories — again, both fiction and nonfiction — can help us to do that. It can help us understand people of the past as well as ourselves. And it can help us prepare for the future.
Will We Still Want to Read Pandemic Books in the Future?
So the question for me is not so much “Will we still want to read pandemic books in the future?” but rather, “Why would we ever stop reading pandemic books?” We always have read about great human disasters. Like true crime, perhaps we find it interesting because it allows us to mentally prepare ourselves for such a circumstance. And now that we’ve experienced the pandemic ourselves, it’s comforting to read how others experienced it while reliving some of the rainbows we found in a very dark time. We will always reach for these books, just as we always have. And we’ll feel a little more human for it in the end.
Want to read COVID-19 pandemic books now? Get started with this list.