The best books about pandemics, parasites, and pathogens

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

The Books I Picked & Why

Ecological Imperialism

By Alfred W. Crosby

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. 


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

By Carl Zimmer

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.


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Illness as Metaphor

By Susan Sontag

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.


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Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health

By Laurie Garrett

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.


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

By Norman F. Cantor

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.


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