The best books on historic accounts of plague outbreaks

Why am I passionate about this?

Charles Kenny is a writer-researcher at the Center for Global Development and has worked on policy reforms in global health as well as UN peacekeeping and combating international financial corruption. Previously, he spent fifteen years as an economist at the World Bank, travelling the planet from Baghdad and Kabul to Brasilia and Beijing. He earned a history degree at Cambridge and has graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and Cambridge. 


I wrote...

The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease

By Charles Kenny,

Book cover of The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease

What is my book about?

A vivid, sweeping history of mankind’s battles with infectious disease. The Plague Cycle reveals the relationship between civilization, globalization, prosperity, and infectious disease over the past five millennia. It harnesses history, economics, and public health, and charts humanity’s remarkable progress, providing a fascinating and timely look at the cyclical nature of infectious disease.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Peloponnesian War

Charles Kenny Why did I love this book?

Widely regarded as the first detailed written account of a plague outbreak. Thucydides describes an infection that struck Athens in 430 BC -it may have been typhoid or Ebola. His description of the flailing of doctors in response, and of subsequent social disorder became a model for later writers. The plague was a big factor in Athens’ defeat by Sparta.

By Thucydides, P.J. Rhodes, Martin Hammond (translator)

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Peloponnesian War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The greatest historian that ever lived'

Such was Macaulay's verdict on Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) and his history of the Peloponnesian War, the momentous struggle between Athens and Sparta as rival powers and political systems that lasted for twenty-seven years from 431 to 404 BC, involved virtually the whole of the Greek world, and ended in the fall of Athens. Thucydides himself was a participant in the war; to his history he brings an awesome intellect, brilliant narrative, and penetrating analysis of the nature
of power, as it affects both states and individuals.

Of his own work Thucydides wrote: 'I…


Book cover of The Decameron

Charles Kenny Why did I love this book?

Written by Boccaccio after the Black Death struck Florence in 1348, The Decameron is a fictional account of ten young Florentines who fled the city to escape the plague, and the tales they tell to while away the time in lockdown. As well as amusing stories, the book has some sharp contemporary observations on how people and the city responded to the Great Mortality.

By Giovanni Boccaccio,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Decameron as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the summer of 1348, as the Black Death ravages their city, ten young Florentines take refuge in the countryside...

Taken from the Greek, meaning 'ten-day event', Boccaccio's Decameron sees his characters amuse themselves by each telling a story a day, for the ten days of their confinement - a hundred stories of love and adventure, life and death, and surprising twists of fate. Less preoccupied with abstract concepts of morality or religion than earthly values, the tales range from the bawdy Peronella, hiding her lover in a tub, to Ser Cepperallo, who, despite his unholy effrontery, becomes a Saint.…


Book cover of A Journal of the Plague Year

Charles Kenny Why did I love this book?

Another fictional retelling involving the Black Death, but this one written about the last great outbreak in the UK, in 1664-5. Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) wrote the book in 1722, drawing on contemporary accounts and considerable research. It describes the mass mortality, fear and horror that accompanied the plague and is one of the earliest examples of closely accurate historical fiction with a purpose: to warn readers that it could all happen again.

By Daniel Defoe,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked A Journal of the Plague Year as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The haunting cry of "Bring out your dead!" by a bell-ringing collector of 17th-century plague victims has filled readers across the centuries with cold terror. The chilling cry survives in historical consciousness largely as a result of this classic 1722 account of the epidemic of bubonic plague — known as the Black Death — that ravaged England in 1664–1665.
Actually written nearly 60 years later by Daniel Defoe, the Journal is narrated by a Londoner named "H. F.," who allegedly lived through the devastating effects of the pestilence and produced this eye witness account. Drawing on his considerable talents as…


Book cover of Rats, Lice and History

Charles Kenny Why did I love this book?

Unlike the other four books in this list, Zinsser’s is an overall history of disease (if focused on typhus) not the story of a particular outbreak. But Zinsser was actively involved in the history he retells at the end of his book as a researcher on a typhus vaccine. Published in 1935, it remains a fascinating and hugely enjoyable primer of the role of infection in history.

By Hans Zinsser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rats, Lice and History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Rats, Lice and History appeared in 1935, Hans Zinsser was a highly regarded Harvard biologist who had never written about historical events. Although he had published under a pseudonym, virtually all of his previous writings had dealt with infections and immunity and had appeared either in medical and scientific journals or in book format. Today he is best remembered as the author of Rats, Lice, and History, which gone through multiple editions and remains a masterpiece of science writing for a general readership.

To Zinsser, scientific research was high adventure and the investigation of infectious disease, a field of…


Book cover of The Hot Zone

Charles Kenny Why did I love this book?

Preston is a thriller writer. He took those talents and applied it to the story of the emergence of Ebola in the 1970s and related viruses. Much like Defoe, he did so with the explicit aim of warning people about future outbreaks –sadly prescient in the case of Ebola.

By Richard Preston,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Hot Zone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The bestselling landmark account of the first emergence of the Ebola virus.

Now a mini-series drama starring Julianna Margulies, Topher Grace, Liam Cunningham, James D'Arcy, and Noah Emmerich on National Geographic.

A highly infectious, deadly virus from the central African rain forest suddenly appears in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. There is no cure. In a few days 90 percent of its victims are dead. A secret military SWAT team of soldiers and scientists is mobilized to stop the outbreak of this exotic "hot" virus. The Hot Zone tells this dramatic story, giving a hair-raising account of the appearance of…


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Conditions are Different After Dark

By Owen W. Knight,

Book cover of Conditions are Different After Dark

Owen W. Knight Author Of The Visitors

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Visionary Compassionate Imaginative Conspiracist Apophenia (or apophenic)

Owen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In 1662, a man is wrongly executed for signing the death warrant of Charles I. Awaiting execution, he asks to speak with a priest, to whom he declares a curse on the village that betrayed him. The priest responds with a counter-curse, leaving just one option to nullify it.

Over four centuries later, Faith and James move to the country to start a new life and a family. They discover their village lives under the curse uttered by the hanged man. Could their arrival be connected? They fear their choice of new home is no coincidence. Unexplained events hint at threats or warnings to leave. They become convinced the village remains cursed despite their friends’ denials. Who can they trust, and who are potential enemies?

Conditions are Different After Dark

By Owen W. Knight,

What is this book about?

In 1660, a man is wrongly executed for signing the death warrant of Charles I. While awaiting execution, he asks to speak with a priest, to whom he declares a curse on the village that betrayed him. The priest responds with a counter-curse, leaving just one option to nullify it.
Over four centuries later, Faith and James move to the country to start a new life and a family. They learn that their village lives under the curse uttered by the hanged man. Could their arrival be connected?
Faith and James fear that their choice of a new home is…


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