The best books on disease and society

Why am I passionate about this?

John M. Barry was the only non-scientist ever to give the National Academies of Sciences Abel Wolman Distinguished Lecture, and he advised the Bush and Obama White Houses on pandemic preparedness and response. He is an award-winning and #1 New York Times best-selling author whose books have also involved him in policy making. The National Academies of Science named The Great Influenza the year’s outstanding book on science or medicine.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

What is my book about?

“Barry will teach you almost everything you need to know about one of the deadliest outbreaks in human history.” -Bill Gates

At the height of World War I, history’s most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Natural History of Infectious Disease

John M. Barry Why did I love this book?

This provides the reader with the background to understand what happens when a pathogen invades both an individual and a society. It’s an absolutely brilliant book by a Nobel laureate scientist, one of my all-time favorites on any subject.

By David O. White, Macfarlane Burnet,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Natural History of Infectious Disease as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Provides a biological inquiry into the causes and spread of infectious disease and its impact on human survival


Book cover of A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

John M. Barry Why did I love this book?

Tuchman is a great writer and a great historian who truly does make the past, and in this case a century and a plague, come alive. It is set in Europe during the 14th century and follows the life of a French nobleman as Europe endures the Black Plague, the Hundred Years’ War, the Papal Schism, and so much more.

By Barbara W. Tuchman,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Distant Mirror as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The fourteenth century was a time of fabled crusades and chivalry, glittering cathedrals and grand castles. It was also a time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world of chaos and the plague.

Here, Barbara Tuchman masterfully reveals the two contradictory images of the age, examining the great rhythms of history and the grain and texture of domestic life as it was lived: what childhood was like; what marriage meant; how money, taxes and war dominated the lives of serf, noble and clergy alike.

Granting her subjects their loyalties, treacheries and guilty passions, Tuchman recreates the lives of proud cardinals,…


Book cover of The Plague

John M. Barry Why did I love this book?

Here’s a book by another Nobel laureate, though this time for literature. A classic study of individuals and stress. Set during the 1940s it is about a plague sweeping through the French Algerian city of Oran.

By Albert Camus,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Plague as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Its relevance lashes you across the face.” —Stephen Metcalf, The Los Angeles Times • “A redemptive book, one that wills the reader to believe, even in a time of despair.” —Roger Lowenstein, The Washington Post 

A haunting tale of human resilience and hope in the face of unrelieved horror, Albert Camus' iconic novel about an epidemic ravaging the people of a North African coastal town is a classic of twentieth-century literature. 

The townspeople of Oran are in the grip of a deadly plague, which condemns its victims to a swift and horrifying death. Fear, isolation and claustrophobia follow as they…


Book cover of A Journal of the Plague Year

John M. Barry Why did I love this book?

This is a novel so good it’s often mistaken for an actual journal. A classic by the author of Robinson Crusoe about one man’s experiences in the year 1665 when the bubonic plague strikes the city of London.

By Daniel Defoe,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked A Journal of the Plague Year as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The haunting cry of "Bring out your dead!" by a bell-ringing collector of 17th-century plague victims has filled readers across the centuries with cold terror. The chilling cry survives in historical consciousness largely as a result of this classic 1722 account of the epidemic of bubonic plague — known as the Black Death — that ravaged England in 1664–1665.
Actually written nearly 60 years later by Daniel Defoe, the Journal is narrated by a Londoner named "H. F.," who allegedly lived through the devastating effects of the pestilence and produced this eye witness account. Drawing on his considerable talents as…


Book cover of The Decameron

John M. Barry Why did I love this book?

This is a classic among classics. It's essentially a collection of stories-- so you can read one or a few at a time and not lose continuity-- told by a group of people seeking refuge from the plague, has direct relevance today to our experience with covid, and offers insight into a different world. Interesting to compare with Tuchman's A Distant Mirror.

By Giovanni Boccaccio,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Decameron as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the summer of 1348, as the Black Death ravages their city, ten young Florentines take refuge in the countryside...

Taken from the Greek, meaning 'ten-day event', Boccaccio's Decameron sees his characters amuse themselves by each telling a story a day, for the ten days of their confinement - a hundred stories of love and adventure, life and death, and surprising twists of fate. Less preoccupied with abstract concepts of morality or religion than earthly values, the tales range from the bawdy Peronella, hiding her lover in a tub, to Ser Cepperallo, who, despite his unholy effrontery, becomes a Saint.…


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The Road from Belhaven

By Margot Livesey,

Book cover of The Road from Belhaven

Margot Livesey Author Of The Road from Belhaven

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Reader Secret orphan Professor Scottish Novelist

Margot's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The Road from Belhaven is set in 1880s Scotland. Growing up in the care of her grandparents on Belhaven Farm, Lizzie Craig discovers as a small girl that she can see the future. But she soon realises that she must keep her gift a secret. While she can sometimes glimpse the future, she can never change it.

Nor can Lizzie change the feelings that come when a young man named Louis, visiting Belhaven for the harvest, begins to court her. Why have the adults around her never told her that the touch of a hand can change everything? When she follows Louis to Glasgow, she begins to learn the limits of his devotion and the complexities of her own affections.

The Road from Belhaven

By Margot Livesey,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a novel about a young woman whose gift of second sight complicates her coming of age in late-nineteenth-century Scotland

Growing up in the care of her grandparents on Belhaven Farm, Lizzie Craig discovers as a small child that she can see into the future. But her gift is selective—she doesn’t, for instance, see that she has an older sister who will come to join the family. As her “pictures” foretell various incidents and accidents, she begins to realize a painful truth: she may glimpse the future, but…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in plagues, nobility, and contagious diseases?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about plagues, nobility, and contagious diseases.

Plagues Explore 47 books about plagues
Nobility Explore 82 books about nobility
Contagious Diseases Explore 10 books about contagious diseases