The best rigorously scientific books about scary viruses

Why am I passionate about this?

As a journalist and an author, I’ve been covering the subject of scary viruses for twenty years—ever since I walked through Ebola habitat in a forest in northeastern Gabon, on assignment for National Geographic. I’ve interviewed many of the eminent experts—from Peter Piot to Marion Koopmans to Tony Fauci—and have spent field time with some of the intrepid younger disease ecologists who look for viruses in bat guano in Chinese caves and in gorilla blood in Central African forests. My book Spillover, published in 2012, drew much of that research together in describing the history and evolutionary ecology of animal infections that spill into humans.


I wrote...

Book cover of Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus

What is my book about?

Breathless, just published in October 2022, is a story of the COVID pandemic virus, known to science as SARS-CoV-2—a story of its origin, its evolution, its fierce journey through the human population. But this is equally a book about people. My main human characters are scientists, around the world, who have studied the virus, in a breathless effort to understand where it has come from, where it is going, and how we might constrain its horrific effects. The book is a narrative of science in action. It attempts to illuminate the reality that science is a human process, not a body of facts. And it arrives at the conclusion that no single viewpoint encompasses the complexity of this formidable virus; nobody knows everything about it, not yet.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses

David Quammen Why did I love this book?

Peter Piot was a young microbiologist at a lab in Belgium, in 1976, when he was assigned to analyze specimens in a thermos bottle shipped up from Zaire, where villagers were dying of a horrific and unknown disease. The thermos contained a virus that came to be known as Ebola. This was the event, as his book vividly recounts, that led Piot to a long and distinguished career in infectious viral diseases, from Ebola to AIDS and beyond.

By Peter Piot,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked No Time to Lose as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Peter Piot was in medical school, a professor warned, "There's no future in infectious diseases. They've all been solved." Fortunately, Piot ignored him, and the result has been an exceptional, adventure-filled career. In the 1970s, as a young man, Piot was sent to Central Africa as part of a team tasked with identifying a grisly new virus. Crossing into the quarantine zone on the most dangerous missions, he studied local customs to determine how this disease-the Ebola virus-was spreading. Later, Piot found himself in the field again when another mysterious epidemic broke out: AIDS. He traveled throughout Africa, leading…


Book cover of Plagues and Peoples

David Quammen Why did I love this book?

McNeill’s book is a classic in the field, the starting point for all modern studies of the role of infectious diseases in the great patterns of history. It traces that role from the time when humans lived in small hunting-and-gathering bands on the African plains, through events such as the Plague of Athens, the Black Death, and the Mongol invasion of Europe, to the present (as of its first publication, in 1976). McNeill was a master historian with the breadth of knowledge and the writing skill to make it work.

By William H. McNeill,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Plagues and Peoples as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Upon its original publication, Plagues and Peoples was an immediate critical and popular success, offering a radically new interpretation of world history as seen through the extraordinary impact--political, demographic, ecological, and psychological--of disease on cultures. From the conquest of Mexico by smallpox as much as by the Spanish, to the bubonic plague in China, to the typhoid epidemic in Europe, the history of disease is the history of humankind. With the identification of AIDS in the early 1980s, another chapter has been added to this chronicle of events, which William McNeill explores in his new introduction to this updated editon.…


Book cover of The Origins of AIDS

David Quammen Why did I love this book?

Scientists now know that the AIDS virus, HIV-1, entered the human population much earlier than is commonly thought—back around 1908, give or take a margin of error, and via a single spillover from a chimpanzee into a human, probably by blood exposure when a chimp was killed and butchered for food. Pepin’s book illuminates how the virus might then, slowly and quietly at first, have spread from a forest in southeastern Cameroun, down tributaries of the Congo River to major cities such as Brazzaville and Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), and from there to the world. Pepin’s work was vastly helpful to me when I assembled my own account of that story, included in my own books.

By Jacques Pépin,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

It is now forty years since the discovery of AIDS, but its origins continue to puzzle doctors, scientists and patients. Inspired by his own experiences working as a physician in a bush hospital in Zaire, Jacques Pepin looks back to the early twentieth-century events in central Africa that triggered the emergence of HIV/AIDS and traces its subsequent development into the most dramatic and destructive epidemic of modern times. He shows how the disease was first transmitted from chimpanzees to man and then how military campaigns, urbanisation, prostitution and large-scale colonial medical interventions intended to eradicate tropical diseases combined to disastrous…


Book cover of Lifting the Impenetrable Veil: From Yellow Fever to Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever & SARS

David Quammen Why did I love this book?

Charlie Calisher is a veteran in the field of killer viruses transmitted by mosquitoes and other arthropods, retired now after decades of dangerous work for the CDC, in collaboration with the WHO, and at Colorado State University. He’s also a sly, plainspoken curmudgeon with a golden heart, a piquant sense of humor, and a wonderfully easy way of telling the stories of science in a conversational tone. The fact that he has honored me with his friendship, and been an invaluable counsel to me and to others on the subject of viruses, biases my high opinion of this book practically not at all.

By Charles H. Calisher,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lifting the Impenetrable Veil as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

History books can be boring to read but Dr. Charles Calisher has written a history of the early days of virus research that is anything but boring. His book emphasizes viruses, organization, and people, the combination which has led us to today. Using yellow fever and the virus that causes it, yellow fever virus, as an example of a disease caused by a virus transmitted by insects, Calisher takes us through the days when knowledge of these diseases was in short supply, techniques were primitive, but researchers were brilliant, innovative, and hard-working. From Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, to Walter…


Book cover of The Evolution and Emergence of RNA Viruses

David Quammen Why did I love this book?

Into the deep weeds, for those who dare! Eddie (as he is famously known) Holmes is one of the world’s leading experts on molecular evolutionary virology, particularly regarding the RNA viruses—which are the scariest and most menacing ones, the ones that mutate often, evolve fast, and spill over from animals to cause gruesome new diseases in humans. Ebola. Marburg. Nipah. Hendra. SARS-1. MERS. Zika. The dengues. And of course SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 beast. Eddie Holmes explains, in lucid but authoritative prose, where these creatures come from, how they adapt so well to infecting people, and why RNA virology is a crucial survival tool for the human future.

By Edward C. Holmes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Evolution and Emergence of RNA Viruses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

RNA viruses provide unique insights into the patterns and processes of evolutionary change in real time. The study of viral evolution is especially topical given the growing awareness that emerging and re-emerging diseases (most of which are caused by RNA viruses) represent a major threat to public health. However, while the study of viral evolution has developed rapidly in the last 30 years, relatively little attention has been directed toward linking work on the
mechanisms of viral evolution within cells or individual hosts, to the epidemiological outcomes of these processes. This novel book fills this gap by considering the patterns…


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Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…


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