What should go to the top of your reading list during a pandemic?
The Swine Flu is on all our minds these days. Kim and I went out to lunch with another friend last week and when someone in the restaurant coughed, we all looked at each other. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked our friend. “Swine Flu?” Then we laughed and went back to eating.
It’s not that we’re not worried at all, it’s just that it’s hard to know how worried to be. I was shrugging off all the early reports about how this could be a real pandemic when Rob, to my surprise, said he thought there was a chance it could really become something scary. Since I am the Official Worrier of the LaZebnik Household, I was thrown by the idea there was something that could worry him more than it does me. (Well, something other than the kids throwing their bodies off of pieces furniture which I always watch with the complacency of a full-time parent who’s too worn out to object to anything that’s keeping them amused and which Rob always tries to stop, convinced someone will break something. But I digress.)
A little probing revealed that the reason Rob was more worried than I was about a potentially devastating flu spreading through the world was because he had recently read The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, which is a very detailed description of the spread of the deadly and terrifying Spanish Influenza in 1918 in which millions and millions of people all over the world died.
I’d probably be a lot more nervous right now if I had read that book too. Another friend–who has read it-told me that while this first wave of the flu may not be a big deal, she’s concerned about what will happen if it comes back in a stronger form, which, I guess, is what happened with the Spanish Flu. Of course, vaccinations and medications have improved enormously since then, so we’re unlikely to replicate those kinds of terrifying statistics, but she is concerned that the flu could come back more virulent than ever in about six months.
See what I mean? Reading the book=increased fear over the Swine Flu. Clearly you should choose your reading material carefully during a pandemic.
So what should you read? There are many different ways to go at a time like this. For instance, if your kids’ school is closed, you might as go check out a bunch of picture and early reader books out of the library, because unless the kids are amused, you won’t have a second to yourself to read, anyway. (Not that you’re likely to with the kids home, no matter what. At least not in my experience.)
But if your kids are still happily trotting off to school each morning, what book should you have close at hand?
Depends on your personality. Me, I’d go straight for escapism. And not violent, exciting escapism. This isn’t the time to be digging out Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, about a bio-terrorist attack from outer space, or Stephen King’s The Stand which is about an army-engineered plague that decimates the entire world’s population, leaving a handful of people left to decide the fate of the world for good or for evil. And Richard Matheson’s The Omega Man (which the Will Smith movie I Am Legend was based on) is also right out. Unless of course, you’re the kind of person who likes scaring herself or finds consolation in how much more devastating fictional plagues are than real ones, in which case go to town and enjoy every one of those exciting, fun books.
But, for pure escapism from what’s going on in the news right now, I’d suggest something along the lines of Jane Austen or a more modern chick-lit book, where the only tension is whether or not the heroine will get the guy (she will). That’s for women, of course. If you’re a guy, you might want to go for a legal thriller by John Grisham.
(That was incredibly sexist of me and if you’re a woman who reads Grisham or a man who reads the likes of Jennifer Weiner, I think you should write an angry comment at the end of this blog. Really. I do. I’d actually like to hear that people crossover in their reading interests and if a few people write, I promise not to make such gross generalizations again. But you REALLY have to be what you’re claiming to be or I won’t retract anything.)
Finally, for those who like to know more about what they’re dealing with, Barry’s Spanish Flu book might actually be interesting reading. Just don’t blame me if it makes you lie awake at night.
Of course, there are other books about pandemics, real or simply possible. The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett looks like a good dive-right-in-and-scare-your-pants-off kind of book about what might lie in our future. And there are tons of historical books out there about past plagues. Just remember that if you’re going to read about the Bubonic Plague you might want to hold off on buying your kid a pet rat.
Then there’s Richard Preston’s non-fiction book The Hot Zone about an outbreak of the Ebola virus and how scientists and doctors dealt with it. It probably won’t console you but it will fascinate you. I read it years ago, when it first came out, as well as a long New Yorker article about Ebola and related diseases and I terrified myself.
You want to know the good news? After all these years, I still don’t have Ebola!
And that’s the final thought I’d like to leave you with. The odds are in our favor. We’ll get through this thing like we get through everything else, stumbling our way to a time and place where the words “swine flu” no longer provoke an emotional reaction. I can’t predict the future but I do know this: hours spent lost in a fascinating book are hours when you won’t be fretting or worrying about things you can’t control.
Plus you can do it in a hermetically sealed room if you’re so inclined.