Editor’s note: In an attempt to deal with the inevitable restlessness that comes with enforced confinement, I thought it might help to while some time by dipping into selections from a curated list of reading material and films that strike a chord during this time of COVID. As I usually do when I want advice of this sort, I went to the advisory panel, who stepped up with gusto, as did our President Jan, Executive Director Jay and Bibliographer Stephen. (I added my two bits too.)
Papers and articles (both primary and secondary)
Cook, Harold J. “The History of Medicine and the Scientific Revolution.” Isis 102, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 102–8. https://doi.org/10.1086/658659
Edna suggested this pithy paper for much the same reason she did the same author’s book. Even if it did come later (the book was published in 2011) it is a great way to get your feet wet.
J. Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History, 78, Issue 4, (1992), pp. 1347–76.
Robert Bud: This wonderful article reminds us that there are competing relationships to nature. At this time, with Spring flourishing in the Northern hemisphere but the coronavirus invading our societies, and with global warming in the background, we need to think about competing models of human relationship to nature and the alternative narratives our cultures have to offer. This article could not be more germane.
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1st edition)
Why read Darwin while in lockdown? Well, Jay made a good point when he reflected that it might be the only time we have enough hours to set aside to do so. Unlike the publisher John Murray, who thought the most interesting part of the book was about pigeons, I am continually amazed at what Darwin packed in there. I must confess to wishing that there was less about bees when I first read it but now that bees are threatened, I plan to go back and give it more consideration.
John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality, London 1662.
Minakshi: Graunt tracked and showed the yearly variation of plague mortality by drawing up extensive tables presented in this publication; it is the kind of primary material on which Daniel Defoe drew to write his classic, only semi-fictional Journal of the Plague Year.
Girolamo Fracastoro, (1546) De Contagione, Contagiosis Morbis et eorum Curatione [On Contagion, Contagious Diseases and Their Treatment]
(My selection): Naturally, I have only read it in translation, but for me there was no contest when it came to this category. The common sense measures recommended in this sixteenth century text, to contain the spread of different types of infections really hits home and makes one wonder how and why, in light of the so much vaster amount of knowledge we have in hand now, our response to the COVID crisis, at least in some places, has been as sluggish as it has been.
Charles E. Rosenberg, “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective.” Daedalus, 1989, 1–17.
Marta Hanson: Later reprinted as a chapter in his book Explaining Epidemics, this book was, as Rosenberg wrote, “a product of the academic world’s collective response to AIDS.” It is well worth revisiting at a time when many of us are also trying to respond to COVID-19 from historical perspectives. He brilliantly uses Camus’s narrative plot in The Plague to abstract to a more universal narrative structure of how humans experience epidemics, particularly what he calls the “dramaturgic pattern” of AIDS in the late 1980s. Rosenberg was circulating a draft of that essay when I started my PhD. The way in which he used Camus’s novel to make visible the historical trajectory and many other dimensions of the terrible loss of life during the AIDS epidemic at that time made a deep impression on me that remains to this day.
Thucydides, “The Plague of Athens” in History of the Peloponnesian War, (Book II, chapters 47-54)
It was our president, Jan, who recommended this reading, which I must confess, I wasn’t sure in which category to place at first, since it’s neither fiction nor a book about the history of science or medicine. But it’s as primary as a historical text can get and so, with Jan’s approval, I put it here. According to him: Everyone should read this account of the plague in ancient Athens. It is brief, but everyone else who has written about epidemics has relied on or at least, alluded to it: Plutarch among the ancients and Defoe and Camus among the moderns. Plenty of people were reading Thucydides during the yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793, including Charles Brockden Brown, whose novel Arthur Mervyn is centered on that event.
Contemporary books in and about our discipline
Fighting the plague in seventeenth-century Italy by Carlo M. Cipolla
Marta: Movingly written and based on extraordinary primary sources, this book is particularly relevant right now considering the similarity of the responses to COVID-19 not just in Italy—with some people fleeing to their southern villas while others stayed behind to take care of the sick and dying or because they had nowhere else to go—but also globally, where the divide between those who can avoid exposure by working remotely and those whose work and thus livelihood requires putting themselves at risk is becoming clearer day by day.
Matters of Exchange. Commerce, medicine and science in the Dutch Golden Age by Harold Cook
Edna: Medicine and commerce at the center of the Scientific Revolution is always a refreshing take on this very controversial “episode.” Coming from the history of biology in the twentieth century, Cook’s erudite book is somehow an escapist reading for me.
How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser
Stephen: We all need an escapist read… Kaiser’s smart narrative tells us a lot about how scientific ideas in the right time and place can just take off in the popular culture. And it is fun, putting you in a 1970s headspace, where you can do some yoga on the beach contemplating the Tao and quantum entanglement. Hey, isn’t entanglement just a way for electrons to social distance?
Epidemics in Modern Asia by Robert Peckham
Marta: In this book, Peckham brings the history of public health in conversation not only with imperial, colonial, and postcolonial histories of South, East, and Southeast Asia over the past two centuries, but also with the global history of public health. It is particularly instructive in these times because it provides a good foundation for people to understand why East Asian nations, at least, were better prepared to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Cholera Years by Charles Rosenberg
Stephen: My first thought to add to this list was this classic, which gave me a great shock the other day when I discovered it was not in the Explore database…until I realized just how classic it was: it was first published in 1967! Rosenberg’s well-written, sobering account tells the story of Americans’ many trials fighting this really scary epidemic.
Vital Accounts: Quantifying Health and Population in Eighteenth-Century England and France by Andrea Rusnock
Minakshi: Wonderful account of the counting of births and deaths by individuals to shed light on political and medical issues.
Pale Rider by Laura Spinney
Marta: This book more than any other, has been at the forefront of my mind as we experience the COVID-19 crisis. It was the first time a historian presented a global history of the 1918 influenza pandemic which included Africa, Latin America, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, rather than focusing predominantly on the Anglo-American experience. Beautifully written, this book provides an unprecedented synthesis of the global loss of life, and even more hauntingly, why we had collectively forgotten this; that institutions not only lost ability to take care of the dead and dying but also the infrastructure to track morbidity and mortality. I find myself filtering the widespread news about the comparable inability to track actual COVID-19 cases today from asymptomatic carriers to deaths through Spinney’s historical reconstruction of the global loss of life during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, His City, and The Plague by Keith Wrightson
(My choice): I love this book for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that the author had been my teacher in grad school, and reading this book later, was to see his ideas and historical practice manifest in book form. It is about the impact of a 1636 plague outbreak in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, traced through a most unusual form of primary source—the wills and inventories prepared by one man, Ralph Tailor. To me this book really drummed in the fact that regardless of scale, the experience of disease is felt at the level of individuals and communities.
The Mandarins [Les Mandarins] by Simone de Beauvoir
Robert: Published in 1954 in the wake of WW2, a character (based on Albert Camus) is a reflection in 1945, among other things, on the difficulty of writing about events just ten years earlier. Although just a few years in the past, it was a completely different era. The book helps us think about the passage of time and the differences between a pre- and post-COVID era. Wonderful existentialist novel too.
Quarantine by Rajinder Singh Bedi
Minakshi: This Urdu-language short story, is a wonderful account of the humanity of a Dalit sanitation worker shaping the responses of a physician to the plague in northern India.
Note: The title is a transliteration of the English word quarantine, itself derived from the Italian for “forty.”
Decameron by Boccaccio
Edna thinks this book, really the one that originated plague or epidemic literature besides inspiring such literary figures as Chaucer and Shakespeare, as perfect for an afternoon’s read. Rather, one should say several afternoons, for it is long, but immense fun, as I am experiencing first hand over many walks in Leeds and now in Utrecht (I am listening to an audio version).
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
From yours truly: This novel is based on the real-life event of the English village of Eyam isolating itself in order to contain the Great Plague that swept England in the seventeenth century. For me, it was interesting reading this while experiencing the COVID-19 lockdown in England, not terribly far from Eyam itself.
The Plague by Albert Camus
Camus’s book sadly resonates with today’s situation, says Edna somewhat ruefully of this modern classic which was also recommended by Marta and Robert. I was inspired by their suggestion to have a listen myself, and can endorse both the sadness and the resonance.
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
Minakshi: Defoe recreates what the citizens of London went through during the 1665 plague with great acuity. Hard to believe this is a work of fiction.
Love in the Time of Cholera [El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera] by Gabriel García Márquez
Considering the innumerable times the title has been riffed in the past months in newspapers and magazines, nobody should be surprised to see this one here.
Edna: The hot, humid and dirty streets of the Caribbean cities and ports set the context for a couple of love stories, one of the protagonists of which is Urbino, a physician and a man of science who devotes his life to eradicate cholera and modernize his country.
Stephen: I’ve just started reading it myself because everyone, including my neighbor, is making references to it. And it puts you in a far-off magical place with delightful characters and thick evocative writing; it is Gabriel Garcia Marquez after all. We need a book like this to help us fight against the addictive draw of the constant 24-hour CNN, Guardian, news updates.
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
Not fiction per se but stranger than. Kris says: I know that it may seem strange to find comfort in a book about a killer virus in the midst of a pandemic, but here we are.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Jay chose this old favorite because Steinbeck shows us the best and worst of humanity, not unlike the current crisis has and does, actually.
Things to Come (1936)
Robert Bud: This big-budget film scripted by H G Wells and produced by Alexander Korda is all about the relations of human to nature. There is a disease “The Wandering Sickness,” an era of destruction of nature and it ends with a debate about the exploration of space. It was based on Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come, the third of a trilogy of books about history and technology.
Note: Access the film via this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqKGlrPAfSw.
On the Beach (1959)
Me: Based on the novel of the same title by Nevil Shute, this film with the gorgeous Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner is a poignant consideration of how the last people left on earth in the aftermath of a global nuclear holocaust act while waiting for death to catch up to them. I think this movie may have been the first time that a Coca Cola bottle played a role!
Marta: I think that everyone is watching—or rewatching—this film right now. I teach it in my course on the History of Public Health in East Asia through Film and Documentaries. The film does not facilely vilify East Asia but rather exposes US corporate destruction of the environment as the original cause and healthcare disparities in the US and globally as the true injustice.
Minakshi: Be Very Scared!
About Time (2013)
Jay: My favorite movie changes by the hour but my favorite actor is Bill Nighy. I therefore tend to favor movies in which he appears and recently re-watched this one as a “pandemic comfort film.” It is a sweet flick that shows what humans, when they are determined to be kind, can accomplish when given extraordinary powers.
The Normal Heart (2014)
My choice: I have a confession: This movie is actually on my ‘to see’ list. But I’m a huge fan of the play of the same title by Larry Kramer, on which it was based. It packs such an enormous emotional punch and is so relevant to so many issues around the social consequences of epidemics, especially of ignoring them.
The Good Place (2016-present)
For some comic relief in these dark times Kris recommends this ongoing Netflix series: It gives me an inordinate amount of joy to be able to watch a modern (popular) television show in which one of the main characters is a PhD student in moral philosophy and avowed Kantian.
Edna: Although it might seem a distant example to today’s pandemics, this HBO miniseries recreates the social and political context where human losses take place, and the global consequences of the Chernobyl accident, which like today’s crisis, it was a fairly predictable, human-produced “natural” event.
More From Our October 2020 Newsletter
- Fifty Pence Story? (with thanks to Simon Armitage)
- Perspectives on Graduate Student Unionization
- A Historian of Science Off the Beaten Path
- Innovations in Education – October 2020
- Member News – October 2020
- In Memoriam: Richard Olson, Elizabeth Anne Wolfe Garber
- HSS News – October 2020
- Notes from Our Bibliographer – October 2020
- News from the Profession – October 2020
- From Our Readers – October 2020