The best books that make our pandemic look mild

Who am I?

When I was a little kid growing up in rural Ontario, my dad and I often talked about what it might be like to live off the grid for a whole winter. Back then, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, detailing nineteenth-century family life with its constant perils and pioneering spirit. It wasn’t until grad school that I started reading science fiction and realized that apocalyptic literature has a lot in common with those “Little House” historical fictions. I’m an English professor at UConn now, and I regularly teach speculative fiction. Apocalyptic literature allows us to face some of our deepest fears within the comforting (and cathartic) framework of fiction.  

I wrote...

Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore,

Book cover of Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

What is my book about?

Utopian and dystopian writing sits at the crossroads of literature and other important academic disciplines such as philosophy, history, psychology, politics, and sociology. It serves as a useful tool to discuss our present condition and future prospects. To examine the future of mankind through detailed and fascinating stories that highlight and exploit our anxieties in adventurous, thought-provoking, and engaging ways. From Thomas More's foundational text Utopia published in 1516 to the 21st-century phenomenon of The Hunger Games, dive into stories that seek to find the best - and worst - in humanity, with the hope of better understanding ourselves and the world.

Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature delivers 24 illuminating lectures which plunge you into the history and development of utopian ideas and their dystopian counterparts.

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).

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.

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.

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”).

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.

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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in dystopia, survival, and good and evil?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about dystopia, survival, and good and evil.

Dystopia Explore 233 books about dystopia
Survival Explore 112 books about survival
Good And Evil Explore 68 books about good and evil

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Plague, Into the Wild, and The Killer Angels if you like this list.