The best books about pandemics, parasites, and pathogens

Bryn Barnard Author Of Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History
By Bryn Barnard

Who am I?

We're all in this together: public health for all people, no matter their status or wealth, is one of humanity's great achievements. Favoring reason over faith, science over anecdote, and the group over the individual, has led to lowered infant mortality, improved health, and longer human lifespans. During pandemics, however, evidence and reason are often discarded, as people panic and try to save themselves. The odd human behavior we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic has multiple precedents in the past. Quack cures, snake-oil sales, conspiracy theories, suspicion of authority, the emergence of cults with eccentric, bizarre, and inexplicable beliefs: again and again, this has been the human response to the unknown.


I wrote...

Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History

By Bryn Barnard,

Book cover of Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History

What is my book about?

Did the Black Death destroy the feudal system? Did cholera pave the way for modern Manhattan? Did yellow fever help end the slave trade? Remarkably, the answer to all of these questions is yes. Time and again, diseases have impacted the course of human history in surprisingly powerful ways. From influenza to smallpox, from tuberculosis to yellow fever, Bryn Barnard describes the symptoms and paths of the world’s worst diseases–and how the epidemics they spawned have changed history forever.

Highlighted with vivid and meticulously researched illustrations, Outbreak is a fascinating look at the hidden world of microbes–and how this world shapes human destiny every day.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Ecological Imperialism

By Alfred W. Crosby,

Book cover of Ecological Imperialism

Why this book?

Alfred Crosby’s fascinating book opened my eyes to how much the European colonial project depended not just on conquering, dominating, and exterminating indigenous people, but also replacing the local flora and fauna with European plants and animals. I learned the term “Neo-Europe” from this book. This was the recreation of European civilization in other parts of the planet: New Zealand, Australia, North America, and to a lesser extent southern South America, and southern Africa. By introducing new crops, new insects to pollinate them, and new domestic animals that displaced indigenous flora and fauna, the settler-colonists culture succeeded in terraforming the environment into a world increasingly familiar to Europeans and increasingly alien to the people they conquered.

The Neo-Europe project failed in the tropics, particularly tropical Africa, where soil conditions and endemic diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and sleeping sickness made it impossible for Europeans to create successful Neo-Europes and replace indigenous peoples. In those latitudes, Europeans still managed to dominate there, but different kinds of hybrid societies and environments emerged. 

Ecological Imperialism

By Alfred W. Crosby,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Ecological Imperialism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

People of European descent form the bulk of the population in most of the temperate zones of the world - North America, Australia and New Zealand. The military successes of European imperialism are easy to explain; in many cases they were a matter of firearms against spears. But as Alfred W. Crosby maintains in this highly original and fascinating book, the Europeans' displacement and replacement of the native peoples in the temperate zones was more a matter of biology than of military conquest. European organisms had certain decisive advantages over their New World and Australian counterparts. The spread of European…


Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

By Carl Zimmer,

Book cover of Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

Why this book?

This is my favorite book on parasites, which I have recommended hundreds of times in international school and university classrooms worldwide. Zimmer is a science writer with a gift for making a horrific subject fascinating and memorable. Zimmer introduced me to a hidden, parallel universe where parasites control their hosts, manipulate their evolution, hide behind their host’s own bodily chemicals, and on occasion turn them into the living dead.

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

By Carl Zimmer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

For decades parasites were the pariahs of science. Only recently have biologists begun to appreciate that these diverse and complex organisms are the most highly evolved life forms on earth. In this work, Carl Zimmer takes the reader on a tour of the strange and bizzare world that parasites inhabit, and recounts the voyages of these wonders of creation. Parasites can: rewrite DNA; rewire the brain; genetically engineer viruses as weapons; and turn healthy hosts into the living dead. This book follows researchers in parasitology as they attempt to penetrate the mysteries of these omnipotent creatures who control evolution, ecxosystems,…


Illness as Metaphor

By Susan Sontag,

Book cover of Illness as Metaphor

Why this book?

Susan Sontag’s thin, succinct classic, written while she was being treated for cancer, is a meditation on the terminology we use to describe health and illness. In brief, she argues that the metaphors and myths we use to describe disease-especially cancer, add to human suffering. She takes particular issue with the military metaphors that have completely captured today’s discourse. Cancer patients are expected to “battle the illness.” Cancer is an “invader,” an “enemy”, that “breaches” our body’s “defenses.” These metaphors seem completely normal, but they are peculiar to our time. Sontag’s book profoundly affected the way I think and talk about diseases.

Illness as Metaphor

By Susan Sontag,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Illness as Metaphor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A discussion of the ways in which illness is regarded pays particular attention to fantasies that pertain to cancer


Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health

By Laurie Garrett,

Book cover of Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health

Why this book?

Laurie Garrett’s magisterial doorstop of a book is meticulously researched and compellingly written. Long before Covid, she made the case that our global public health systems, evolved over centuries and at their peak in the 1960s are now broken: under-funded, under-staffed, ill-prepared, and ill-equipped to handle a global pandemic. The Covid death count proved her right. She documents the political compromises and budgetary cutbacks made again and again that, for example, turned TB, once on the point of eradication, into the deadly multi-drug resistant (and in the case of XTB, totally resistant) scourge that infects billions planetwide. This is a grim, sobering book that made me pine for the days when the Surgeon General could say, without irony, that the age of infectious disease is over.

Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health

By Laurie Garrett,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Coming Plague, comes an explosive new work on a full-blown global health crisis in the making. Garrett takes readers around the world to reveal how a series of potential and present public health catastrophies mark the death of public health and taken together form a terrifying portrait of real global disaster in the making.

Public health is a bond between a government and its people and if either side betrays that trust the system is likely to collapse like a house of cards. Garrett illustrates how over the last twenty…


In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made

By Norman F. Cantor,

Book cover of In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made

Why this book?

Cantor’s book showed me that when a lethal pandemic arrives, it can change society in ways that make “returning to normal” impossible, because the conditions that made “normal” possible no longer exist. The Black Death - probably a bubonic plague pandemic - wiped out as much as half of China’s population, before traveling the silk road to Europe where, from 1347-1351, a third of the population died. The pandemic also suffocated the feudal order, created the conditions for capitalism, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, breathed new life into art, and transformed the legal system. In effect, the pandemic plowed the seedbed for the modern Western world. Covid may be a similar epidemiological juggernaut, sweeping away human institutions that we know, leaving us a novel world that will be strange and different in ways we can’t yet imagine.

In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made

By Norman F. Cantor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Wake of the Plague as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times bestseller, In the Wake of the Plague is a fascinating study of the cultural and religious consequences of one of the deadliest tragedies to befall humanity: the black plague. Though rigorously scientific in his approach, Norman F. Cantor has produced an unforgettable narrative that in many ways employs the novelist’s skill for storytelling.

The Black Death was the fourteenth century’s equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe’s population, and irrevocably changed the lives of those who survived. And yet, most of what we know about it is wrong. The details of the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in parasites, evolution, and plagues?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about parasites, evolution, and plagues.

Parasites Explore 11 books about parasites
Evolution Explore 94 books about evolution
Plagues Explore 32 books about plagues

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Cancer Journals, Plutopia, and The Mortal Sea if you like this list.