Spread by contact with organs or body fluids, Ebola has a high fatality rate and there is no known cure. With over 900 reported deaths in the last few weeks, the threat is still far far away from our little bookstore on Mercer Island. Most of the deaths have been in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. And yet. Concern is rising.
Our morbid fascination with infectious disease is nothing new. Something about the silent uncontrollable spread and often dramatic symptoms commands our attention. If you find yourself drawn to the drama of the classic “human race obliterated by virus” narrative, skip the daily news and go for some of these full-fledged disaster stories. They’ll help you put things in perspective. Or scare you out of your mind.
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston: In a story that might hit way too close to home, here’s the one nonfiction book on my list. Obviously still as relevant today as when it was published in 1995, The Hot Zone follows the first emergence of the Ebola virus out of the African forest and into the suburbs of Washington D.C. Don’t panic when you read the in-depth description of viral evolution, symptoms, and means of transmission. You probably just have a little cold. Probably.
The Stand by Stephen King: This is the epic flu novel, worth the enormous page count. A mutated virus accidentally leaks from a U.S. military facility and wipes out most of the human race. The few that are left slowly find their way to each other, congregating into two groups: good and evil. Eventually one group will have to destroy the other. Steeped in nostalgia and iconic character development, this is the one epidemic story that covers the entire scenario from first outbreak to full set of consequences. So many readers claim The Stand as their favorite novel of all time, and with good reason. It’s hard to find a more infectious page-turner.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller: A heartbroken man, his dog, his old Cessna, and his gun are at the center of this post-apocalyptic tale set in Colorado. Most of the population succumbed to a super-flu nine years prior, and the protagonist spends his time based out of an airstrip, flying around looking for intruders and reminiscing about all that he’s lost. When a voice comes through on his plane’s radio, the interruption sparks new hope that there might be something else out there worth finding. His journey takes him outside his tightly controlled safety zone and towards something that might be worth living for.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: It’s 1666 in this beautifully written historical novel, and a widow with two young sons watches the bubonic plague slowly kill off her remote British village. As she loses everything she knows and loves to the disease, the quarantine and desperate circumstances force her into acts of heroism she never could have imagined.
Blindness by Jose Saramago: In Saramago’s vision, a city is hit by a strike of “white-blindness.” It begins with a man in a car, whose wife watches in horror as his sight disappears in the time it takes a traffic light to change to green. The wife is as much a metaphor for humanity as a guide through the reader’s journey. She remains immune as everyone around her succumbs to blindness. In an attempt to stop the spread, the government confines victims to an institution and shoots them if they attempt to leave. The wife pretends she has also gone blind so she can go with her husband. What happens from there is rife with metaphor and raises core questions about humanity. Saramago’s sparse writing style gives the story a distinctive and unforgettable tone. This is no Michael Crichton thriller—Blindness is a literary masterpiece.