The best books on disease and society

John M. Barry Author Of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
By John M. Barry

Who am I?

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.

The books I picked & why

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Natural History of Infectious Disease

By David O. White, Macfarlane Burnet,

Book cover of Natural History of Infectious Disease

Why 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.

Natural History of Infectious Disease

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


A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

By Barbara W. Tuchman,

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

Why 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.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

By Barbara W. Tuchman,

Why should I read it?

4 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,…


The Plague

By Albert Camus,

Book cover of The Plague

Why 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.

The Plague

By Albert Camus,

Why should I read it?

8 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…


A Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel Defoe,

Book cover of A Journal of the Plague Year

Why 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.

A Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel Defoe,

Why should I read it?

6 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…


The Decameron

By Giovanni Boccaccio,

Book cover of The Decameron

Why 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.

The Decameron

By Giovanni Boccaccio,

Why should I read it?

5 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.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in plagues, nobility, and contagious diseases?

7,000+ 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 32 books about plagues
Nobility Explore 68 books about nobility
Contagious Diseases Explore 7 books about contagious diseases

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Hot Zone, Thucydides and the Shaping of History, and How to Think about War if you like this list.