The best books to understand how epidemics relate to bigger narratives

Why am I passionate about this?

I began college as a science major, but then switched to literature from a minor to my major. In graduate school, as I worked on my dissertation (which became my first book), I found that metaphors of the body and health were everywhere in the literary field in the mid-nineteenth century. Suffice it to say that the sciences, including the rapid development of modern medicine, are both fundamental to this period and deeply shape its literary culture. In Mapping the Victorian Social Body, I became fascinated with the history of data visualization. Disease mapping completely transformed the ways we understand space and how our bodies exist within it.


I wrote...

Mapping the Victorian Social Body

By Pamela K. Gilbert,

Book cover of Mapping the Victorian Social Body

What is my book about?

The cholera epidemics that plagued London in the nineteenth century were a turning point in the science of epidemiology and public health, and the use of maps to pinpoint the source of the disease initiated an explosion of medical and social mapping. Mapping the Victorian Social Body explores the history and continuing impact of such maps. Tracing the development of cholera mapping from the early sanitary period to the later "medical" period of which John Snow's work was a key example, the book explores maps of cholera outbreaks, residents' responses to those maps, and their importance to the novels of Charles Dickens. The book compares the metropolis with British India, where imperial politics took cholera mapping in a very different direction.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843

Pamela K. Gilbert Why did I love this book?

A wonderful book on how techniques of mapping were central to the construction of both the empire and of an emerging idea of “India” as a coherent space. I love the way it clearly lays out how mapping is never simply an innocent process of measuring or describing something that exists out in the world, but is always a process of constructing that reality. And it is an essential part of the history of India, as well as the British empire. 

By Matthew H. Edney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mapping an Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this history of the British surveys of India, focusing especially on the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS) undertaken by the British East India Company, the author relates how imperial Britain employed modern scientific survey techniques not only to create and define the spacial inmage of its Indian empire, but also to legitimate its colonialist activities as triumphs of liberal, rational science bringing "Civilisation" to irrational, mystical and despotic Indians. The reshaping of cartographic technologies in Europe into their modern form played a key role in the use of the GTS as an instrument of British cartographic control over India. In…


Book cover of The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Pamela K. Gilbert Why did I love this book?

For those who want to know more about the famous John Snow map, this is the perfect deep dive. It also tells us more about the relationship between Snow and Henry Whitehead. I find that too often histories of science focus on scientists in isolation; this clarifies the significance of Whitehead, a clergyman, to the reception of Snow’s ideas. Written for a broader audience than the academic, and with an engaging, pacy narrative, it is still deeply researched and responsibly told. 

By Steven Johnson,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Ghost Map as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A National Bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and an Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year

It's the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure-garbage removal, clean water, sewers-necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.

In a triumph of…


Book cover of The Yellow Flag: Quarantine and the British Mediterranean World, 1780–1860

Pamela K. Gilbert Why did I love this book?

This is a more recent history of cholera in the context of quarantine, and clarifies some of the stakes of decisions about quarantine in the context of the history of plague. It places it nicely in the context of a larger European response to epidemic disease and the history of plague in the Mediterranean. I liked that it expands the focus to an international context, and a longer period of history—epidemics, like any novel experience, are processed within existing schema, and the plague was a particularly resonant and long-lasting framework for understanding contagion.

By Alex Chase-Levenson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Yellow Flag as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, quarantine laws in all Western European nations mandated the detention of every inbound trader, traveller, soldier, sailor, merchant, missionary, letter, and trade good arriving from the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. Most of these quarantines occurred in large, ominous fortresses in Mediterranean port cities. Alex Chase-Levenson examines Britain's engagement with this Mediterranean border regime from multiple angles. He explores how quarantine practice laid the foundations for the state provision of public health and constituted an early example of European integration. Situated at the intersection of political, cultural, diplomatic, and medical history, The Yellow…


Book cover of Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020

Pamela K. Gilbert Why did I love this book?

This book begins with cholera and the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and vampire novels, and then moves forward in time to examine the longstanding continued use of epidemic disease as a metaphor to describe political revolt and terror. Kolb argues that the colonial state has long positioned itself as a hygienic "doctor" treating political "disease," and shows clearly why understanding political activity within the frame of disease is so damaging. Moving through the mid-twentieth century with Camus and Algeria, to Rushdie, 2001, and the shameful history of the US torture memo, Kolb's argument is both historically sweeping and persuasive.   

By Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Epidemic Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Terrorism is a cancer, an infection, an epidemic, a plague. For more than a century, this metaphor has figured insurgent violence as contagion in order to contain its political energies. In Epidemic Empire, Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb shows that this trope began in responses to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and tracks its tenacious hold through 9/11 and beyond. The result is the first book-length study to approach the global war on terror from a postcolonial literary perspective.

Raza Kolb assembles a diverse archive from colonial India, imperial Britain, French and independent Algeria, the postcolonial Islamic diaspora, and the neo-imperial…


Book cover of Explaining Epidemics

Pamela K. Gilbert Why did I love this book?

This collection of previously published essays by Charles Rosenberg elaborates many of his ideas about how people make meaning out of epidemics, including his famous theory that epidemics are understood in a dramatic tripartite structure (see “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective”). Rosenberg shows not only how the history of medicine illuminates larger themes, but why it matters, both to those of us interested in history and those interested in medical science itself. 

By Charles E. Rosenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Explaining Epidemics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Medicine has always had its historians; but until recently it was a history written by and for practitioners. Charles Rosenberg has been one of the key figures in recent decades in opening up the history of medicine beyond parochial concerns and instead viewing medicine in the rich currents of intellectual and social change of the past two centuries. This book brings together for the first time in one place many of Professor Rosenberg's most important essays. The first two sections of essays, focusing on ideas and institutions, are meant at the same time to underline interactions between these realms. The…


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Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

John's book list on who we are, how we’ve changed, and what gives us hope

What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…


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Interested in epidemics, Cholera, and colonies?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about epidemics, Cholera, and colonies.

Epidemics Explore 44 books about epidemics
Cholera Explore 11 books about Cholera
Colonies Explore 73 books about colonies