5 Infectious Non-Fiction Reads
With the engine of the world grinding to a halt in the face of COVID-19, we thought our regularly-scheduled list of recommended books might be a good place to explore some of the most infectiously immersive non-fiction books about plagues, pandemics, and all manner of other biological unpleasantness. While none of those will make you feel comfortable, they’re all valuable reads when it comes to understanding just how devastating infectious diseases can be – and how modern society is often ‘whistling past the graveyard’ in the face of an inevitable infectious apocalypse. And what better time to read about these than when you’re stuck in home quarantine anyway?
Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future by Michael B. A. Oldstone
AIDS, influenza, polio, and smallpox make up a chilling cast of characters – with the last in that list responsible for 300 million deaths in the 20th century alone. In this vividly-written, reliably researched book about the history of devastating diseases, Professor Emeritus of Scripps Research Department of Immunology and Microbiology Dr. Michael B.A. Oldstone explores deadly diseases through the ages, including recent updates on SARS, bird flu, virally caused cancers, chronic wasting disease, and West Nile virus.
“Although I am not a virologist, I have always found biology, epidemiology, and medical history to be interesting – and this book hits all those points and then some,” writes reviewer Kayla in a 5-star, verified review. “I would not recommend it to the casual, non-medical reader, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in medical history and science.
“As a virologist, I found it interesting and enlightening,” writes reviewer Teresa Rich, “and I even learned some things that I didn’t pick up in my immunology courses. Parts of the book are at a college reading level, which may be too detailed for the casual reader, but the sections on the history of various viral diseases is very readable.
Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah
With writing appearing in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, and Scientific American, prize-winning science journalist Sonia Shah is no stranger to writing about infection diseases. In fact her book The Fever is a must-read about malaria (and why we haven’t got rid of it yet.) In this book, she explores the grim history of viral infections that have ravaged humanity—and how that knowledge prepared us to stop the next worldwide outbreak (which is timely, since we might be in the midst of it right now.)
“Look out, here it comes,” warns Ralph W. Kendall Jr. in his 5-star, verified review. “If you wonder how human-kind will meet our demise. This is it. A combination of our own meddlesome unintended consequences, stupidity, and interference in nature’s ways. How long will it take for Marburg, Ebola, or cholera to pen the final chapter in our story?”
ealovitt, a Hall of Fame and Top 1000 Reviewer, writes: “If you have any interest at all in epidemiology or any concern about our ‘once and future’ plagues, you will want to read this book. The chapter on how pathogens jump from animal to human hosts gives many examples of how environmental destruction causes new diseases. In the ultimate chapter of this book, “Tracking the Next Contagion” the author also suggests methods of spotting new diseases before they actually become epidemics.”
The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston
Still a #1 bestseller in the Science Education Research category, this book was so compelling that it was even turned into a mini-series starring Topher Grace and Julianna Marguiles. Described as “scarier than fiction” it outlines the secret SWAT team of soldiers and scientists mobilized to stop the outbreak of this terrifying virus; and it’s scary to look at the impact the virus has in central Africa, and then think how a similar disease could impact life here in the west.
“If I was a germaphobe before… well, let’s just say there isn’t enough hand sanitizer in the world for me!” warns Vine Voice reviewer darswords in his 5-star, verified review. “Knowing this is nonfiction made this even more frightening. It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago there was an Ebola scare. What a horrid disease! And this author did a poetic job of helping the reader to see it and feel it. If you haven’t read it yet, climb out of your hiding place and give it a try. Forewarned is forearmed as they say. Might as well get the Audible version to make it even more real. Reading happens at bedtime. Bet you can guess how this book blended into my dreams! And since I listened as I read the Kindle with the Audible, that voice! Richard M. Davidson’s voice. What a deep bass and excellent for the genre! Creepy and authoritative! Wow!”
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
“Not just among our best science writers but among our best writers, period,” writes Dwight Garner, of the New York Times – and once you peer into this chilling non-fiction books, you’ll see why such praise was shared for National Geographic and Esquire contributor David Quammen. In Spillover, he writes about how the next big pandemic is likely to be a virus spread to humans via wildlife – and with the origin of COVID-19 suspected to be bats, perhaps Quammen’s conjecture has proven to be fact.
“An important read for understanding contagion,” writes acidpiper in a 5-star, verified review. “This book covers a whole big bunch of ‘baddies’, explaining a lot of science is a way that is understandable by the non-professional. Respectful, yet jam packed with all the little details you will quickly realize you Really want to know about, even if you didn’t when you started. The book is a page-turner, not only for the fascinating subject matter, but because of the beautiful flow and use of language.”
“Better than The Hot Zone,” writes Evelyn Uyemura, a Vine Voice. “I have a weird interest in reading about diseases, and this book is one of the very best in the genre. Quammen writes for National Geographic, and he goes *everywhere.* If there was a disease outbreak in the Central African Republic in 1987, chances are, he has interviewed the doctor who first spotted the disease, the locals whose family members died, and the BSL-4 researchers in Virginia who analyzed it, and he probably also climbed down into a cave where the bat that spreads the disease roosts. You learn a lot about diseases from the microscopic level to the human story of what it’s like to have the disease, to the incredible courage and dedication of the people who fight the diseases, whether in the clinic or in the lab.”
Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs by Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker
Globalization has bought wealth and abundance to many, but it’s also made infectious diseases that much easier to turn into pandemics. In this chilling book by world-leading epidemiologist Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker, you can learn how biological time bombs are ticking that could cause disaster within the next few years – like the growth of treatment-resistant bacteria.
In a chilling 5-star, verified review written years before our current COVID-19 crisis, Thomas Mininger writes: “It’s not a question of if, it’s a matter of when. The authors are talking about more than local catastrophes. Even earthquake, tsunami, and hurricane damage will seem local compared to a 1918 style influenza outbreak on our modern worldwide just-in-time delivery system. This will wreak havoc on the first world as well as the third. What we consider important News headlines today will suddenly not seem so important anymore.”
Reviewer Nick left a similar 5-star review, writing: “As a local public health professional I have been following Dr. Osterholm’s work for several years. I have always been impressed by his ability to highlight challenges in public health. I picked up his book expecting more war stories from an amazing career in public health. Deadliest Enemy provides far more than that. It’s clearly the magnus opus of this public health professional. The book goes into the infectious disease challenges facing the future of the world based on the vantage point of a veteran infectious disease hunter. Those challenges are laid out in a framework that clearly prioritizes the issues. The book ends with the clear call for action, grounded in reality, with practical solutions for the vexing challenges posed by our deadliest enemy.”