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

The Books I Picked & Why

Natural History of Infectious Disease

By David O. White, Macfarlane Burnet

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.


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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

By Barbara Wertheim Tuchman

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.


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The Plague

By Albert Camus

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.


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A Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel Defoe

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.


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The Decameron

By Giovanni Boccaccio

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.


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