The best books about plagues

31 authors have picked their favorite books about plagues and why they recommend each book.

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The Decameron

By Giovanni Boccaccio,

Book cover of The Decameron

A must for all of you, lovers (hopefully) of intelligence and humor. Avidly read and re-written by the superstars of English literature (Chaucer, Shakespeare), Boccaccio’s celebrated cycle of short stories, told by seven ladies and three gentlemen sheltered in the countryside near Florence during the Black Plague, is a timeless summa of wit, narrative pleasure, and literary sophistication. Even historians recycled Boccaccio’s juicy, gossipy accounts to feature (or slander) their characters. 


Who are we?

We have always been fascinated by literary masterworks that stage the plague as a pivotal factor in the plot. We added the next ingredients: a whodunnit with a claustrophobic setting, the Baroque Age, a (real) financial thriller between Rome and London, and an unusual protagonist. Rita is a historian of religions, Francesco is a musicologist. After working as journalists, meeting in a newspaper bureau, and getting happily married, we started a writing career publishing 11 novels translated into 26 languages and 60 countries with more than 2 million copies sold. Our novels are a mix of literary creativity and meticulous research, characters and settings are strictly based on original documents and eyewitness accounts. 


We wrote...

Imprimatur

By Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, Peter Burnett Colquhoun (translator),

Book cover of Imprimatur

What is our book about?

September 11, 1683, Rome. In a tavern, the sudden death of an old traveller arouses suspicions. An outbreak of plague causes all the guests to be placed under quarantine. Among them is the mysterious Abbott Atto Melani, castrato and spy of the Sun King. Accompanied by the tavern’s young serving boy, Melani evades the quarantine at night to shed light on the murder case. His investigation brings to light a gigantic plot that involves the truth about a double-faced Pope and the destiny of the English Crown.

Based on original papers of the Vatican secret archives and first published in Italy to great controversy in 2002, Imprimatur became an international bestseller but soon disappeared from the Italian bookstores. Only in 2015 the novel was available again in original language.

A Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel Defoe,

Book cover of A Journal of the Plague Year

This so-called ‘journal’ was an account of the Great Plague of London of 1665, 57 years later in 1722. The style of writing is graphic, detailed, and visual which is why it comes over as an accurate account; you feel as if you are wandering the streets of plague-infested London, watching as plague-infested houses are nailed up with their occupants inside and watchmen placed on the street outside. While the narrative voice is that of another time, the observation and perceptiveness give the book a contemporary feel so that I felt comforted knowing that at least people in distant times had actually experienced a pandemic. 


Who am I?

I founded Critical Metaphor Analysis, an approach that has become well known in English language studies. My books Corpus Approaches to Critical Metaphor Analysis, Politicians and Rhetoric: The persuasive power of metaphor, and Analysing Political Speeches have over 5,000 citations. I am also ranked first on Google Scholar on political rhetoric. I have always tried (though not always successfully) to write in an accessible style to reach out to audiences beyond academia. As well as lecturing, I assist in the training of Westminster speechwriters. I love languages and speak French, Spanish, Moroccan Arabic, and Malay with varying degrees of incompetence; I have rediscovered the pleasure of watercolour painting.

I wrote...

Metaphors of Coronavirus: Invisible Enemy or Zombie Apocalypse?

By Jonathan Charteris-Black,

Book cover of Metaphors of Coronavirus: Invisible Enemy or Zombie Apocalypse?

What is my book about?

This book explores the metaphors used by the media and by politicians during the Covid-19 era to understand how language shapes our moral reasoning and the role of language in policy formation and communication during a period of crisis. It analyses metaphors, metonyms, allegories, and symbols to gain insight into the moral basis for the decisions that people made during the pandemic. It draws on cognitive linguistics, history, social psychology, and literature for a multi-layered interpretation of the language of the pandemic and its social and political consequences. 

The Plague

By Albert Camus,

Book cover of The Plague

Dark, sweet, intense perfumes of North Africa emanate from the bitter-sweet semi-autobiographical story of doctor Rieux, monsieur Tarrou, and the rich constellation of characters involved in the tragic events, culminating in a deadly outbreak, set in post-war Algeria.

Glorified by the French liberal intelligentsia, today perhaps slightly passé but still vibrating and proud, Camus’ masterpiece is austere and overwhelming like a tango dancer.


Who are we?

We have always been fascinated by literary masterworks that stage the plague as a pivotal factor in the plot. We added the next ingredients: a whodunnit with a claustrophobic setting, the Baroque Age, a (real) financial thriller between Rome and London, and an unusual protagonist. Rita is a historian of religions, Francesco is a musicologist. After working as journalists, meeting in a newspaper bureau, and getting happily married, we started a writing career publishing 11 novels translated into 26 languages and 60 countries with more than 2 million copies sold. Our novels are a mix of literary creativity and meticulous research, characters and settings are strictly based on original documents and eyewitness accounts. 


We wrote...

Imprimatur

By Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, Peter Burnett Colquhoun (translator),

Book cover of Imprimatur

What is our book about?

September 11, 1683, Rome. In a tavern, the sudden death of an old traveller arouses suspicions. An outbreak of plague causes all the guests to be placed under quarantine. Among them is the mysterious Abbott Atto Melani, castrato and spy of the Sun King. Accompanied by the tavern’s young serving boy, Melani evades the quarantine at night to shed light on the murder case. His investigation brings to light a gigantic plot that involves the truth about a double-faced Pope and the destiny of the English Crown.

Based on original papers of the Vatican secret archives and first published in Italy to great controversy in 2002, Imprimatur became an international bestseller but soon disappeared from the Italian bookstores. Only in 2015 the novel was available again in original language.

Hamnet

By Maggie O'Farrell,

Book cover of Hamnet

I loved Agnes, and her character was all the more fascinating as I kept reminding myself she was a fictionalized version of Shakespeare’s wife. She has this mysterious, other-worldliness to her that I just adored. Her survival skills are what protect and guide her in life, far more than the protection of marriage or societal guidelines. She knows herself and cares not one iota if people say she’s too wild or too old or too odd. And, anyway, none of this matters when it comes to her parenting because she’s a strong and devoted mother to her children.  


Who am I?

Change is essential for growth. My degree is in economics and I started out in the corporate world until I had my second child, after which I became a painter and, eventually, a sign language interpreter. My mother was an inspiration to me, believing that learning and adapting are essential to knowing oneself. She was true to her values, proud and independent, rarely caring if others felt differently. At the age of 45, she earned her Bachelor’s degree and began a 30-year career in social work. Because of her influence on me, I tend to gravitate toward protagonists who are headstrong and evolve into self-sufficient, fulfilled individuals.


I wrote...

A Letter in the Wall

By Eileen Brill,

Book cover of A Letter in the Wall

What is my book about?

It’s 1971, and Joan Dumann fears her former business partner wants her dead, but her anxiety is less about dying than it is about feeling disrespected and invalidated. As she constructs a letter about her predicament, she revisits her past.

Born into a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family in 1915 and raised with privilege, Joan wrestles with her turbulent thoughts and unfulfilled desires, an internal battle that often results in self-destructive tendencies. When she attempts to push against the norms for women of her time in order to forge her own identity, she is met with resistance. Based on a true story, this psychological drama is also a historical study, spanning several decades, of an emotionally complex woman, replete with unfulfilled desires, female empowerment, and redemption.

Legend

By Marie Lu,

Book cover of Legend

Legend is one of those books that feels nostalgic when you read it. It perfectly mixes all of the elements from the 2010 dystopian classics, with a wonderful dual narration. In Legend we read the story through Day and June’s eyes. Both are from completely opposite parts of society, which makes the story twice as interesting. It even has elements of enemies to lovers! What this book does so well with its dual narration, is it lets you see more of the world that the author has created, which we wouldn’t normally get had she chosen to tell the book from one of these characters. Personally, I preferred Day’s POV, and the arc his story took. 


Who am I?

Storytelling has been a passion of mine since fifth grade. I’ve always loved the way authors can put you inside of a world and introduce you to a cast of characters who feel as real as the people around you. The characters you meet inside these books become a part of you, and the best way to connect a reader to these charming and brave characters is to let them tell their story. Tell it from all of their perspectives and let the reader come to know and love each of them. Why read a book and only love one character when you could find an entire found family within those pages?

I wrote...

Ending In Cadence

By Catherine Downen,

Book cover of Ending In Cadence

What is my book about?

Jumanji meets Narnia in a brand new YA Portal fantasy.

When Ash Bane follows his sister through one of their grandmother’s paintings, they discover a vast new world on the other side. But the portal home remains out of reach unless they play the enchanted card game filled with riddles, puzzles, and mystical creatures they’ll have to defeat. Emma Delaney, a fierce and spunky scrapyard worker native to this new land agrees to help them complete the game and return home. This life-threatening game may turn out to be the least of Ash’s concerns when his heart betrays him and Ash Bane and Emma Delaney find a love that spans worlds.

In the Wake of the Plague

By Norman F. Cantor,

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

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.


Who am I?

We're all in this together: public health for all people, no matter their status or wealth, is one of humanity's great achievements. Favoring reason over faith, science over anecdote, and the group over the individual, has led to lowered infant mortality, improved health, and longer human lifespans. During pandemics, however, evidence and reason are often discarded, as people panic and try to save themselves. The odd human behavior we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic has multiple precedents in the past. Quack cures, snake-oil sales, conspiracy theories, suspicion of authority, the emergence of cults with eccentric, bizarre, and inexplicable beliefs: again and again, this has been the human response to the unknown.

I wrote...

Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History

By Bryn Barnard,

Book cover of Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History

What is my book about?

Did the Black Death destroy the feudal system? Did cholera pave the way for modern Manhattan? Did yellow fever help end the slave trade? Remarkably, the answer to all of these questions is yes. Time and again, diseases have impacted the course of human history in surprisingly powerful ways. From influenza to smallpox, from tuberculosis to yellow fever, Bryn Barnard describes the symptoms and paths of the world’s worst diseases–and how the epidemics they spawned have changed history forever.

Highlighted with vivid and meticulously researched illustrations, Outbreak is a fascinating look at the hidden world of microbes–and how this world shapes human destiny every day.

1666

By Rebecca Rideal,

Book cover of 1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire

This book is a gripping story of the year 1666 in which three calamities befell London: the Black Plague, the Anglo-Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London. When I read the book in 2021, I found that we were re-living practically the same events in modern times. I live in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona, and in the spring of 2020, shortly after the COVID shutdowns, fires ignited by lighting swept through the canyons just north of my home. I found myself in a “get ready” zone of the region’s “Get Ready, Get Set, Go” emergency evacuation plan.

1666 shows the range of people’s responses to extreme and immediate danger: from Samuel Pepys’ quick thinking to get the critical government documents out of harm’s way, all the way to the panic and inability to act of others. All animals show a range of reactions…


Who am I?

Internationally recognized mind-body science and design and health pioneer, Esther Sternberg M.D. is Research Director, Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, Inaugural Andrew Weil Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine, Professor of Medicine, Psychology, Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture, Founding Director, University of Arizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance, and Associate Director (Research), Innovations in Healthy Aging. Formerly a National Institutes of Health Senior Scientist and Section Chief, she received the U.S. Federal Government’s highest awards, authored over 235 scholarly articles, and two engaging and popular science-for-the-lay-public books: The Balance Within chronicling mind-body science underpinning stress and illness and belief and wellness, and Healing Spaces, which helped ignite the 21st-century design and health movement.

I wrote...

The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions

By Esther M. Sternberg,

Book cover of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions

What is my book about?

I tend to read biographies, historical fiction, and non-fiction. In my book, The Balance Within, I include historical context for some of the common notions about stress that have been around for thousands of years – things your grandmother may have told you about stress and illness, belief and healing, and place and wellbeing. What science is discovering is that these notions do reflect scientific truths. They can help us understand the universality of our biological responses to threats – the stress response, and the basis for how believing can help make you well.

Our brains and physiological responses have not changed in millennia – although our modern understanding of how these responses work to keep you well or make you sick have made exponential leaps, through advances in science and technology. 

Black Hole

By Charles Burns,

Book cover of Black Hole

This graphic novel has such a strange atmosphere. It is a classic in surreal graphic novels. The dreamlike scene get a nightmarish feel combined with the insecurity of teenage life. Personally it made me see different on my teenage years, and why I felt different. This book can make you go deeper into the questions of your alieness. I come from a back ground of cinematic art and this book felt like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series in beautiful black ink drawings. It made me realize that stories told in drawings can offer as much as a movie.


Who am I?

I have been a surrealist since I discovered Salvador Dali and David Lynch at the age of 14. I have been on a path to combine the art world’s depth in style; symbols and metaphors with storytelling. Becoming a comic artist was a natural path and the media is great for expressing the many complex questions in life; what it is to be human and a woman in this world. I have become an artist who revolves around feminism and surrealism, eros and doubt. 


I wrote...

The Clitoris

By Rikke Villadsen,

Book cover of The Clitoris

What is my book about?

A woman has an encounter with a tattooist that leads to a quick and very different pregnancy. This unexpected event leads her on a journey of self-discovery; deep in the flickering world of her subconscious, she discovers many potent symbols, poetic wonders, spiritual guides, and strange visions.

The Venetian Bargain

By Marina Fiorato,

Book cover of The Venetian Bargain

While not as famous as Thomas Mann or Anne Rice, Marina Fiorato well deserves her place on this list with The Venetian Bargain. It’s another superbly researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction set in 1576 during the plague. Grounded in fact, it follows a young Turkish girl, scorned in her homeland, who sneaks aboard a boat bound for Venice. She soon discovers the ship's illicit cargo in the hold—and the sultan’s horrific plan—a man infected with bubonic plague. The man infects the entire city within days. This book is much more than a historical account. It’s a gripping story with compelling characters. What’s more, much of what the world has gone through with Covid-19, from masks to quarantine, was invented by the Venetians and it's covered in The Venetian Bargain through the eyes of wonderful characters.


Who am I?

As an author of a dual-timeline thriller series set in Venice in the present-day and 16th century, I’ve spent countless hours researching the world’s most mesmerizing city. I’ve been there three times, including on a research trip. I’ve worked with historians and experts on various aspects and have explored the ancient streets and buildings first-hand. I’ve also read dozens of books set in Venice.


I wrote...

The Prisoner of Paradise

By Rob Samborn,

Book cover of The Prisoner of Paradise

What is my book about?

The Prisoner of Paradise is a dual-timeline thriller about Nick & Julia O'Connor, an American couple who travel to Venice, Italy on vacation. After a head injury, Nick comes to believe he can hear a woman speaking to him from Tintoretto's 'Paradise,' located in the Doge's Palace. Though Julia thinks he's suffering from delusions, Nick is adamant the voice was real. He believes it belongs to Isabella Scalfini, a woman who was murdered in 1589. 

On a quest to learn the truth, Nick discovers an ancient religious order that has developed a method of extracting people's souls from their bodies. They imprison those souls in Paradise--the world's largest oil painting--and claim that the thousands of people in it are all evil.

The Painter's Apprentice

By Laura Morelli,

Book cover of The Painter's Apprentice: A Novel of 16th-Century Venice

Laura Morelli’s debut novel is another piece of historical fiction set during a period of plague. The research here also shines through, but the characters are the real stars. The Painter’s Apprentice follows a young girl whose father works with gilded gold leaves. As this artform begins to fall out of fashion and newer painting techniques become favored by the city’s elite, she’s sent off to live with a renowned painter as his apprentice. All seems well in the beginning, until she falls in love with the Moor servant and bubonic plague strikes the city.


Who am I?

As an author of a dual-timeline thriller series set in Venice in the present-day and 16th century, I’ve spent countless hours researching the world’s most mesmerizing city. I’ve been there three times, including on a research trip. I’ve worked with historians and experts on various aspects and have explored the ancient streets and buildings first-hand. I’ve also read dozens of books set in Venice.


I wrote...

The Prisoner of Paradise

By Rob Samborn,

Book cover of The Prisoner of Paradise

What is my book about?

The Prisoner of Paradise is a dual-timeline thriller about Nick & Julia O'Connor, an American couple who travel to Venice, Italy on vacation. After a head injury, Nick comes to believe he can hear a woman speaking to him from Tintoretto's 'Paradise,' located in the Doge's Palace. Though Julia thinks he's suffering from delusions, Nick is adamant the voice was real. He believes it belongs to Isabella Scalfini, a woman who was murdered in 1589. 

On a quest to learn the truth, Nick discovers an ancient religious order that has developed a method of extracting people's souls from their bodies. They imprison those souls in Paradise--the world's largest oil painting--and claim that the thousands of people in it are all evil.

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