As February turned to March I realized I needed a better understanding of epidemics and disaster response. It was clear to me then that the coronavirus was going to blow up in my own country, that I was going to be voicing opinions about it, and that in consequence I had a responsibility to inform myself as well as I could within the constraints of my budget and schedule. I wanted a stronger grounding in the history and past examples of American disaster response and the basics of epidemiology. Towards that end I bought about ten books, seven of which I have now finished. I do not have time to review them at all length, but I can provide some capsule-reviews for people who are interested in reading more on these topics themselves.
Christian McMillen’s Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction and Marta Wayne and Benjamin Bolker’s Infectious Disease: A Very Short Introduction are both excellent little primers. I am an unabashed fan of the Very Short Introduction series. Their basic idea is to find a noted expert in topic X and have them write an accessible-yet-intelligent 100-150 page introduction of their topic of expertise. Many journalists and commentators who spend several hours trawling Wikipedia whenever a new topic hits the news cycle would be far better served by picking up a $6 kindle edition of the relevant VSI volume instead. These two books are oddly complimentary: McMillen is a historian, and his Very Short Introduction is focused on the social history of past pandemics. Wayne and Bolker are an ecologist and geneticist, respectively, and their focus is on modeling the dynamics of disease growth. McMillen devotes chapters to the bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, influenza, and AIDS; Wayne and Bolker also provide 20-page summaries of various diseases, their case studies being influenza, HIV, cholera, malaria, and Bd (the fungal disease wiping out many of the world’s amphibious populations). Together the two books provide a solid introduction to how various types of diseases work and the history of human attempts to treat or contain them.
Nancy Bristow’s American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic is written in a dry academic style: it is a history written by a historian for other historians. The book goes all-in on the social justice/critical theory framing common to 21st century historians; this will bother some readers, but the underlying material is interesting enough that they should probably soldier through it. My take on this sort of framing is that it is not too different from the outrageous things 19th century historians would scaffold their historical research with, and in neither case should the silliness of the scaffolding detract from the quality of the research underneath. Bristow’s book is not a chronological narrative account of the pandemic. Rather, she keys in on select groups and tries to reconstruct what they thought and felt about infectious disease before, during, and after the Spanish Flu blew through. Thus she has one chapter focusing on the way public health authorities understood the disease and their role in treating it, another on the different reactions that nurses and doctors had to the epidemic, and so forth. I do not recommend this one to all readers; I think I will do a longer “passages I highlighted” post for it in a week or two that will present the parts most relevant to the current crisis.
David Randall’s Black Death at the Golden Gate is a fantastically readable book that describes the bubonic plague breakout that swept San Fransisco from 1900 to 1907. Randall tells this story from the perspective of the two Public Health Service officers assigned with containing it. Everything about this book is spectacularly well done. Randall is able to capture what the San Fransisco of 1900 felt like, provide a fascinating picture of the Public Health Service and bacteriology in the early 1900s, and narrate the course of the plague and its containment in an almost noveslistic fashion. There has been a lot of hubub over whether today’s pandemic was the product of autocracy; this book is an anecdote to that view, narrating in great detail how California’s democratically elected politicians did their utmost to hide the plague in their largest city and derail all attempts to face the problem head on. It is also a useful case study in the art of getting things done that I will be reflecting on for some time. I strongly recommend it to all readers.
Lee Clarke’s Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination is by far the most disappointing book on this list. Disaster sociology is a thriving subfield, and Lee Clarke is one of its brighter lights. Unfortunately he is a scattered writer and his book is a poorly organized mess. Every chapter is an attempt to summarize an important idea in disaster sociology or risk planning. Even when I agreed with Clarke’s take—which was most of the time—I was appalled at how poorly worded and loosely argued it was. You are much better off reading his academic papers, which cover most of the same ground in better prose and with tighter arguments.
Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster is another book I strongly recommend, but with caveats. Solnit’s central argument is that in the wake of disaster common people do not “panic,” nor do they turn into selfish beasts of the Hobbesian sort. Panic, looting, chaos, and violence are rare in almost all disasters; whether the disaster be a pandemic or a plane crash, collective suffering usually turns survivors into a community of the selfless. This is not a thesis unique to Solnit. It is actually the central claim of some 70 years of disaster sociology research. But Solnit wants to use these truths towards very specific political ends. Solnit is a left anarchist, and she sees in disaster communities something like her ideal utopia. Her animus towards central authorities who do dumb and dangerous things to reinstate “order” and control “panic” in the wake of disaster is justified; her unrelenting hatred of capitalist markets is bonkers and detracts from her argument. (e.g., you won’t be hearing much in the 80 pages she devotes to Hurricane Katrina to Walmart’s response to that Hurricane, even though it was arguably the most effective actor both before and after the Hurricane made land fall).
As the book was written in the Bush years, Solnit also does not miss a single opportunity to snipe at that administration. This sniping is wonderfully well crafted. Solnit is a writer that writers love to read. For Solnit the essay is an art form; she is as committed to this art as she is to her political beliefs. For some people this will diminish the book’s argument. Solnit is allergic to statistics and refuses to reduce events to quantified metrics, even though the sociology research she is building off of is chock full of them. This is probably a stylistic tic (numbers are ugly) but they may be an ideological element to it as well (like capitalist markets, numbers are depersonalizing). If you are familiar with the underlying research, Solnit’s numberless approach will not bother you. But if you are a data head who expects a rigorous argument instead of beautiful one, you may be frustrated with Solnit’s style.
Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes is the least immediately relevant of these books to the pandemic at hand. Ripley focuses on disasters with short time scales where quick action saves lives: terrorist attacks, plane crashes, school shootings, earthquakes, avalanches, and so forth. It is a useful compliment to Solnit’s book however, as it reinforces how rare “panic” and other dastardly behavior is at the scene of disaster. Far more common than panic is paralysis. Ripley’s question: who keeps moving and who does not? She finds her answer through interviews with hundreds of disaster survivors. This book is not rigorous in the strict scientific sense, but I think the stories Ripley has collected are useful nonetheless. Ripley’s book is also quite readable, though this has more to do with the inherently fascinating material she presents, not the literary technique she employs.