These are a few great books that will remind us that we are not living through the end of the world. Thankfully, we’re living in the good times.
I’ve read all of these books and can highly recommend them as perfect reading material to help bring perspective to current events:
Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Tuchman is such a gifted writer that her 1978 book about Europe in the 14th century reads like a novel. The 14th century was a time of tremendous social and political upheaval with its mid-point marked by the Black Death. The book is a tour de force. In fact, whenever I have a few minutes of downtime right now, I’m re-reading it. By the way, because it’s a hefty book with small print which is hard on aging eyes, I highly recommend reading it on an e-reader.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Boccaccio, who lived through the Black Death, started working on the Decameron while the plague was still playing itself out. It tells of a group of young aristocrats who self-quarantine in a villa outside of Florence. They pass the time telling one hundred vivid stories. The book begins with a description of life during the worst plague in human history. It’s a brilliant book and I highly recommend.
John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. Kelly meticulously documents the Black Death’s march through the world, from its first appearance in China to its final days, after it wiped out 1/3 to 1/2 of Europe’s population. (It spread elsewhere in the known world, but the lack of records means we don’t know the percentage of people who died.) Two things stand out about the book. The first is people’s utter helplessness, which contrasts strongly with our situation today. The second is that the plague resulted from global cooling. As the world warmed in the early Middle Ages, people were able to plant more crops, have more food, and thrive. However, the Little Ice Age started at the end of the 13th century, severely reducing crops. This, in turn, led to famine, which weakened people and made them more vulnerable to the plague. Contrary to the foolish people on the left, global warming is good for people. It’s global cooling that kills.
John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Although the Black Death was the biggest killer on a percentage basis, for sheer numbers dead, nothing beats the racistly named Spanish Influenza, which may have killed up to 100 million people around the world. Barry is a great writer and the book makes for compelling reading. One of the things that’s fascinating about the book is that the world had advanced enough scientifically to understand what was happening but it still lacked the ability to treat the virus.
Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice and History. Zinsser wrote this book in 1935, which wasn’t the dawn of modern science but was certainly the early morning. It’s a charming book that has an almost conversational tone as it talks about epidemic diseases and the animal vectors that make them happen. I read this book last in high school when my Dad gave me a copy, so I don’t recall the details, but I remember liking it.
All five of the above books are wonderful reads on their own terms. They’re also very depressing reminders that Mother Nature has lots of tricks up her sleeves when it comes to culling the human race. However, I also find the books hopeful because we no longer live in the ages when we had no idea what was happening, no way of controlling the onslaught, and no treatments. Now, in 2020, we already have the ability to save most people from the worst symptoms, we’re reconfiguring drugs as fast as possible to treat the virus, and various laboratories, armed with the virus’s genomes, are already working on vaccinations to quell the next outbreak. We live in an age of wonders and miracles, and these books, all of which cover past plagues, remind us how lucky we are.
By the way, if you want the optimistic take on what Trump is doing, don’t forget to check out my friend Don Surber. He’s been correct so often about Trump over the last four years that I tend to trust his take on things.
And if you want a reminder (again) that we’re living in the good times when it comes to facing down epidemic disease, this Live Science article runs through the world’s devastating plagues, some of which are addressed in the above books and some of which are not.
Wash your hands, touch things outside your house as little as possible, eat healthy foods, keep your spirits up by keeping busy, and have faith that we’ll come through this all right, scarred but alive.