Reading for the plague: a syllabus

As a futurist I spend most of my time looking ahead to understand what might happen next.  Sometimes this means drawing on my background as a literature and book person, hunting literary sources that help illuminate the future.


“Illustration from a ca. 1492 edition of Il Decameron published in Venice”

So once the coronavirus outbreak began, I started thinking about readings.  My list grew into a kind of sprawling syllabus, which I’d like to share.

My goal was to assemble a good range of texts from a diverse set of authors.  These come from across seven centuries, although they’re biased towards the past hundred years.  They stem from a variety of genres, including realism, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and magical realism.  Some focus on preventing a plague, while others explore the course of a disease or its aftermath.  Several are concerned with storytelling itself.

I started with novels, but things grew from there.  Now there are novel-ish book length narratives, short stories, short story collections, a play, and a diary.  I’d like to add nonfiction, if folks can help me create a good list (EDITED TO ADD: here’s one.  Thanks, Vanessa!).

For each item I offer a very brief note about why I picked it.  Each also links to a relevant Wikipedia article.  There are links to free and open content, as available.


Boccaccio, The Decameron (1353).  One hundred stories about being human, told by people fleeing a plague.  (Decameron Web; one Project Gutenberg English language translation; another one; Librivox recording)

Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year (1722). The narrator reflects on his experience of a 1665 bubonic plague outbreak in London.  An unusual novel, containing a lot of evidence alongside a personal story: data tables, official documents.  I have an introduction here. (Project Gutenberg edition; Librivox recording)

Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826).  Another science fiction work from the genre’s founder.  The story takes place in the late 2000s, and concerns a plague that wipes out the human race.  Several characters are clearly analogues for people Shelley knew, such as her husband and Byron. (Project Gutenberg text; Librivox recording)

Alessandro Manzoni, I Promessi Sposi (1827); English translation, The Betrothed.  Known for chapters describing a seventeenth-century plague centered on Milan.

Jack London, The Scarlet Plague (1912). An old man, survivors of a plague that set human civilization back millennia, tries to tell kids about the world he recalls.  (Project Gutenberg edition; Librivox recording).

Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939).  A short novel about people suffering from the Great Influenza. (thanks to Liz Ahl)

Albert Camus’s La Peste (1947); English translation, The Plague (1948). A much-interpreted vision of a plague striking a North African town, seen as an existentialist classic.  It’s become popular of late: Alain de Botton in the New York Times; Jonah Raskin in Counterpunch.

George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (1949). A work of ecological science fiction, this traces the collapse of human civilization after a horrendous plague.  Our point of view character studies changes to the natural world and the shift of society to a hunter-gatherer existence.

Richard Matheson, I am Legend (1954).  A pandemic turns survivors into vampires. (thanks to Phil Katz)

Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain (1969). An early techno-thriller about stopping a plague before it could go viral.  The story is immersed in science, the military, and technology.

Stephen King, The Stand (1978; revised edition 1990). A devastating plague created by the American military wipes out most of the human race.  What follows is a fantastic struggle between two societies of survivors.

Frank Herbert, The White Plague (1982).  After his family is killed in a terrorist attack, a biologist creates and unleashes a disease that devastates the human race.

DoomsdayBook(1stEd)Samuel Delany, Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985). A linked short story collection taking place in a fantasy world, where a plague breaks out and gradually draws the narrative to contemporary New York City.

Gabriel García Márquez, El amor en los tiempos del cólera (1985); English translation, Love in the Time of Cholera (1988). One conceit parallels love and disease. I haven’t read this one yet, but that’s a good reason to create a syllabus.

Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992). We follow two plagues as they strike Britain in parallel, the Black Death in the 14th century and a new disease in the 21st.

P. D. James, The Children of Men (1992). Humanity is stricken by infertility and civilization changes for the worse.

José Saramago, Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995); English translation, Blindness (1997). A plague of blindness strikes a city and its society falls apart.

Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001).  An exploration of the 1665 London plague.  I actually haven’t read this one, but am intrigued.  Apparently it responds to both Defoe and Camus.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). An alternate history, wherein the Black Plague utterly exterminates Europe, and the following centuries develop differently.  There is also a religious/fantasy plot, as several characters are repeatedly reincarnated.

poe_masquereddeath Rackham

Rackham illustration for Poe’s “Masque”

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), MaddAddam (2013). Three visions of the same, shared story, wherein a corporate scientist launches a plague to wipe out a dystopian humanity.

Thomas Mullen, The Last Town on Earth (2006).  Historical fiction describing a Washington town in the 1918 influenza pandemic. (thanks to Eric Behrens)

Colson Whitehead, Zone One (2011).  A plague of zombies.  (thanks to Chris Lott)

Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (2012).  Survival after a massive pandemic. (thanks to Chris Lott)

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014). Follows two timelines: the outbreak of a horrific flu and what’s left of civilization, years later.  The latter plot focuses on a traveling Shakespeare troupe.

Ling Ma, Severance (2018).  Story of a major pandemic. (thanks to Chris Lott)

Karen Thompson Walker, The Dreamers (2019). A sleeping plague strikes a California town. (thanks to Chris Lott)

Short stories

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). Classic vision of decadence and power versus a plague.  Back in college I used to host Red Death parties. (Poe Museum text; multiple Librivox recordings)

Thomas Mann, “Der Tod in Venedig“; English language, “Death in Venice” (1912). An older man’s attraction to a youth is paralleled with a disease outbreak.

Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr., “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” (1969). A biologist crafts a plague against humanity.  (Lightspeed copy)

Cory Doctorow, “The Masque of the Red Death” (2020).  A riff on Poe.


Aleksandr Pushkin, «Пир во время чумы» (1830); English language title, “A Feast in Time of Plague.”   (Russian text; English translation) (thanks to Phil Katz)

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991, 1992). Multiple intertwined plotlines explore the AIDS epidemic, connecting politics, religion, urban life, gender, and more.

Anthony Clarvoe, The Living (1993).  Describes the 17th-century London plague.  (thanks to Phil Katz)


Charles Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849 and 1866 (University of Chicago Press, 1962).  (thanks to Phil Katz)

John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (2004).

Think in the Morning has been blogging novels from 1918.


Samuel Pepysdiary (1660-1669). During this decade Pepys recorded his daily life, including encounters with a plague.  One list of plague-related entries. (Project Gutenberg texts; Librivox readings)

César Cui, Пир во время чумы (1900); English language, A Feast in the Time of Plague.  An operatic setting of Pushkin’s play.  (thanks to Phil Katz)

Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill” (1926). Essay.  (Project Gutenberg text) (thanks to Liz Ahl)

Jill Lepore reflects on some of the books in this post.  Here’s a list of books I mostly haven’t read.  “How Pandemics Seep Into Literature.”

What to do with this

I’d love to learn about other readings, since this isn’t an exhaustive list.  Please add in comments; I can edit this post.

Would anyone like to read into this list together, online? Some folks expressed interest via email and Twitter, like Monica Bilson, Tony D’Angelo, Paul Bond, Norm Friesen, and Chris Lott.  We could have a pandemic book club!

(thanks to Thomas Burkdall, Lucy Guerlac, Liz Ahl, and Vanessa Vaile)

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25 Responses to Reading for the plague: a syllabus

  1. Chris L says:

    As you know, I’ve been pulling excerpts from various pandemic and plague related books and such lately for Notabilia. So, some possible additions:

    – Zone One (Colson Whitehead) = New York City, post-plague. zombies

    – The Dog Stars (Peter Heller) = post-apocalyptic flu pandemic

    – Severance (Ling Ma) = a satirical take on boredom, office-life and pandemic

    Maybe more of a stretch, but related:

    – The Dreamers (Karen Thompson Walker) – A sleeping virus infects most of a town.

  2. Phil Katz says:

    Another book: I am Legend (Richard Matheson) — maybe a bit too zombie-ish, but it was the basis for three film adaptations (the good one with Vincent Price, the really good one with Charlton Heston, and the crappy one with Will Smith). Of course, the list of relevant movies is extensive.

    Another play: The Living (Anthony Clarvoe): I saw this years ago, but I don’t remember where or when — just that I liked it.

    And an opera (which I have never seen or heard of before today): A Feast in the Time of Plague (César Cui, 1900, in Russian) — based on a one-act play by Pushkin (1830):; Pushkin text at

  3. Phil Katz says:

    PS — here is a non-fiction recommendation (a classic book in the history of science): Charles Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849 and 1866 (University of Chicago Press, 1962).

  4. Eric Behrens says:

    You should definitely add the novel The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen. It’s historical fiction set in a town that quarantines itself during the 1918 flu epidemic.

  5. Ted says:

    Cory Doctorow has released the audio book of his novella “The Masque of the Red Death,” a near-future pandemic story inspired by Poe:

  6. Steven Kaye says:

    I’d say The Carrier (1988), but nobody should be forced to see that.

  7. Rick says:

    I’m reading Camus’ The Plague and would love to discuss it.

  8. Liz Ahl says:

    I’d vote to add “On Being Ill” by Virginia Woolf, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter, based on this article (and the book it draws from). I’ve read the Woolf, but not the Porter.

  9. Joel says:

    “L. DeBard and Aliette” by Lauren Groff is a favorite short story of mine. And available at The Atlantic.

  10. Monica Bilson says:

    I finished Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers and I highly recommend it. It involves an advanced AI, a group of sleepwalkers who are walking across the country, and a deadly virus threatening to wipe out humanity. It also involves demagogues, scientists, and priests.

    There is a new one coming out in early May: The End of October by Lawrence Wright. Medical thriller about a deadly virus that originated in China.

  11. Kim Mix says:

    Please add the “Hot Zone” by Richard Preston to your non-fiction list.

    This is a thrilling true story of the first emergence of the Ebola virus. I brought this book with me to college in 1994 as I embarked on my biotechnology degree and career in scientific research. Now, its time to teach with this book and I’m eager to add it to my first-year seminar in the fall.

  12. Pingback: Links: April 26, 2020

  13. Pingback: ‘Reading and Wellbeing revisited: surviving the pandemic’ - Institute of English Studies Blog

  14. Pingback: Reading _The Plague_ | KatysBlog

  15. Katherine Correa says:

    Thanks for this list! One must-add is Jose Saramago’s “Blindness,” a novel that centers around a contagious blindness striking down the population faster than people can figure out what is causing it. The results are fear, paranoia, and totalitarian “blindness-camps” becoming far more contagious than the disease itself. Like any of Saramago’s other titles, it is beautifully written and leaves much to think about.

  16. Pingback: Reading for the plague: a syllabus – Discover2Learn

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