The best books that make our pandemic look mild

The Books I Picked & Why

The Stand

By Stephen King

Book cover of The Stand

Why this book?

The Stand is a big book. It is big in scope at over a thousand pages (and do read the full version; when the abridged version is 800+ pages, you may as well go all in). It is also big in its treatment of Captain Trips, the fictional disease that kills over 99% of the human population. 

King asks—and answers—pragmatic questions. How would people get the electricity back on? How would they manage the removal of diseased corpses? 

But he also asks—and invites readers to answer—philosophical questions. Are humans fundamentally good or evil? Are there things that go beyond the natural world, the rational mind? In a world where virtually everyone you know has died, what is left to be afraid of? 

The answer to that last question is…so many things.


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Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover of Station Eleven

Why this book?

This is a beautiful book. The situation is pandemic. Twenty years after the Georgia Flu has killed almost everyone, a troupe of Shakespearean actors tours what was once southern Ontario and northern Michigan, bringing art to the survivors of the apocalypse. The characters include an intergenerational group of people whose ages at the time of the apocalypse completely influences how they see the world.

The treatment of the situation is deeply artistic. Moving between the years leading up to the pandemic and the adventures of post-pandemic travelers who are being targeted for elimination, the novel provides an almost magical interweaving of past and present, of hope and despair. 

This is pandemic beauty—artfully blending anxiety and anticipation—at its very best.


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Doomsday Book

By Connie Willis

Book cover of Doomsday Book

Why this book?

Doomsday Book is the opening volume of the Oxford time-travel novels, and it packs a huge emotional punch.

Kivrin Engle, a young historian, goes back to the Medieval period, fully vaccinated against the bubonic plague even though she is supposed to arrive twenty years before the outbreak. Things go wrong with the time-travel tech, and Kivrin arrives in 1348, where she witnesses the ravages of the historical Black Death pandemic, which is juxtaposed with a mid-twenty-first-century epidemic that has broken out in Oxford. 

Time travel and pandemic are two of my favorite science fiction tropes, so I love this novel, which has great characters and a lovely mix of pathos and humor.

Also, it’s the only pandemic book I’ve ever read that mentions the shortage of toilet paper (although in a very British way, when Finch says he’s rationing the “lavatory paper”).


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Parable of the Sower

By Octavia E. Butler

Book cover of Parable of the Sower

Why this book?

Published in 1993, the novel is set in an incredibly unstable United States of 2024. Parable of the Sower is at once prescient and terrifying. The wealth gap is at an all-time high, California is on fire, disaffected youth are lost in a drug-induced haze, and there is a white supremacist in the White House. 

We follow hyper-empath Lauren Olamina, a young African-American woman who is forced to leave her gated community when the walls come down. Her adventures are compelling, terrifying, and based on Butler’s deep understanding of the darker parts of American history.

Octavia Butler died tragically before she could finish this beautiful and horrifying series, but I highly recommend Parable of the Sower and its more hopeful sequel, Parable of the Talents.


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The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

Book cover of The Road

Why this book?

This is the best novel I will never read again. Except I’ve said that before. And then I read it again. I like hope, and this post-apocalyptic novel (not a pandemic, but almost everyone is dead, so it’s in the same vein) is short on hope.

And yet. The Road is gorgeous. It’s the story of The Man and The Boy on The Road in a devastated world. They have nothing but a shopping cart with a rearview mirror hooked up so they can get advanced warning of predators.

And they have love. This father and son love each other and they love life. McCarthy gives us a brutal, uncompromising world with very few humans and even less technology, but it is beautiful nonetheless. 

And yeah, it makes our pandemic look mild.


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