The best books about pandemics and humanity

Who am I?

In my day job working for a charity, I work with emergency planners, examining how we can minimise the harm caused by disasters, including outbreaks of disease. I’m fascinated by the measures in place to deal with catastrophes, and how contingency planners respond on a practical and a human level. When writing my novel about a killer virus, I devoured both fiction and non-fiction books tackling pandemics ranging from the Black Death to Aids. I am confident I know the skills needed to survive when a pandemic reduces the world’s population to a small, doughty band of survivors. I am not confident I possess these skills.

I wrote...

The Health of Strangers

By Lesley Kelly,

Book cover of The Health of Strangers

What is my book about?

The Health of Strangers is the first book in a series of crime thrillers set in Edinburgh, against the background of a (fictional) pandemic. Written pre-Covid, the books accurately predict many of the civil liberties issues we’ve grappled with during the coronavirus crisis. The Health of Strangers introduces Mona and Bernard of the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team, who hunt you down if you miss your monthly compulsory health check.

Hampered by public indifference and limited resources, the team deals with corrupt politicians, religious cults, and illegal raves, and tries very, very, hard not to end up dead. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

The Plague

By Albert Camus,

Book cover of The Plague

Why did I love this book?

You can’t talk about pandemic novels without referencing the granddaddy of them all - The Plague by Albert Camus. I loved this book so much I named one of my lead characters Bernard, after the hero in the book. The plot: a small town in Algeria is affected by an outbreak of plague, and a group of town folk work together to try to overcome their helplessness in the face of death. They deal with some very recognisable problems – corruption, bureaucracy, quarantine… Some people have read the book as really being about the French resistance to the German occupation during World War Two. Either way, it’s a very relatable read, and sales of it went through the roof during the early days of Covid!

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…

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel,

Book cover of Station Eleven

Why did I love this book?

This is one of my all-time favourite novels. It opens with an actor dying on stage, on what turns out to be one of the first days of a new deadly flu epidemic. The disease then goes on to kill most of the world’s population. The book follows a group of travelling performers, who, post-pandemic, travel round the remaining settlements putting on Shakespeare plays. Using multiple viewpoints, the stories cleverly interlink, and in The Prophet, Mantel has created a truly creepy villain. Lyrical and witty, Station Eleven gives an unusually optimistic view of life after a pandemic.

By Emily St. John Mandel,

Why should I read it?

20 authors picked Station Eleven as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Best novel. The big one . . . stands above all the others' - George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones

Now an HBO Max original TV series

The New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction
National Book Awards Finalist
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist

What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in…

Book cover of Death is a Welcome Guest

Why did I love this book?

Louise Welsh has written three novels about a pandemic called the Sweats – her Plague Times trilogy. This is the second book in the series. I particularly liked this one because its protagonist, Magnus, is a Scottish not-very-good stand-up comedian, and I too was once a not-very-good aspiring comic! After a series of unfortunate events, Magnus ends up in prison, where the disease is rife. Breaking out, he decides to make for his childhood home on Orkney, accompanied by fellow escapee Jeb. The fast-moving plot will keep you racing through this book.

By Louise Welsh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Death is a Welcome Guest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year

The second instalment in the thrilling new Plague Times trilogy from the author of A Lovely Way to Burn.

Magnus McFall was a comic on the brink of his big break when the world came to an end. Now, he is a man on the run and there is nothing to laugh about.

Thrown into unwilling partnership with an escaped convict, Magnus flees the desolation of London to make the long journey north, clinging to his hope that the sickness has not reached his family on their remote Scottish…

Book cover of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

Why did I love this book?

I read this book as background reading for writing my own virus-based novel, and it was an absolutely fascinating study of the response to a pandemic that took place almost exactly a century ago. It covers everything from the role of the First World War troops’ demobilisation on spreading the virus, to the impact of poverty on infection rates, to why young, fit people were the most likely to die of the illness. And, of course, why it was called Spanish Flu in the first place (spoiler alert: not because it came from Spain!)

By Laura Spinney,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Read the devastating story of the Spanish flu - the twentieth century's greatest killer - and discover what it can teach us about the current Covid-19 pandemic.

'Both a saga of tragedies and a detective story... Pale Rider is not just an excavation but a reimagining of the past' Guardian

With a death toll of between 50 and 100 million people and a global reach, the Spanish flu of 1918-1920 was the greatest human disaster, not only of the twentieth century, but possibly in all of recorded history. And yet, in our popular conception it exists largely as a footnote…

Book cover of To Calais, in Ordinary Time

Why did I love this book?

I’d never read a book quite like this one before. Set in 1348, the pandemic setting for this book is, of course, the Black Death. A gentlewoman, her servant, and a group of soldiers travel across England, only slowly becoming aware of how much danger they are in, as the disease lays waste to the population. Be warned, it is written in an Olde English dialect which takes a little while to get used to. It’s well worth sticking with it, though, because the characters are beautifully drawn, and you will be rooting for them every inch of the way, as they attempt to out-ride their fate.

By James Meek,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked To Calais, in Ordinary Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Inventive and original' The Times
'Fans of intelligent historical fiction will be enthralled' Hilary Mantel

Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
Longlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction

Three journeys. One road.

England, 1348. A gentlewoman flees an odious arranged marriage, a proctor sets out for a monastery in Avignon and a young ploughman in search of freedom is on his way to volunteer with a company of archers. All come together on the road to Calais. In the other direction comes the Black Death, the plague that will wipe out half of the population of…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in plagues, survival, and Edward III of England?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about plagues, survival, and Edward III of England.

Plagues Explore 44 books about plagues
Survival Explore 175 books about survival
Edward III Of England Explore 21 books about Edward III of England