Coronavirus. Incubation period. N95s. Social distance. Self-quarantine. Shelter in place. Lockdown. Flatten the curve. This is the terminology of a new and disconcerting way of life.
The sudden vulnerability, the forced isolation, can undermine one’s sense of identity. The first three books in this list address that pressing concern.
But the dramatic break in routine affords an opportunity to think more deeply about one’s life and the changing worlds – social, political, economic, and natural – in which it is lived. The fourth, fifth, and sixth books in this list take up that challenge.
Thinking more deeply about the world can mean thinking more meaningfully about the role of viruses in human history and the role they might play in humanity’s future. The third trio of books in this list examines the Spanish Flu of 1918; explains the “spillover effect” widely thought to be responsible for the COVID-19 virus resulting from the current strain of coronavirus; and imagines – in a novel finished well before the coronavirus crisis emerged – an even more lethal pandemic.
Finally, supporting mental health during and after natural disasters, including pandemics, is a professional discipline. The last set of books in this list reviews best practices and methods for this work.
With the aid of books like these, people can work, individually and collectively (albeit remotely and separately), to get through this crisis together. Together while apart.
As always, the descriptions of the titles are drawn from copy provided by the publishers. When two dates of publication are provided, the second is for the release of the paperback.
Enduring and overcoming isolation
Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, by Amanda Ripley (Harmony Books 2008/2009, 288 pages, $16.00 paperback)
Today, nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Tomorrow, some of us will have to make hard choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? In her quest to answer these questions, award-winning journalist Amanda Ripley traces human responses to some of recent history’s epic disasters. To understand the science behind the stories, Ripley turns to brain scientists and trauma psychologists. She comes back with wisdom about the humanity of crowds, the elegance of the brain’s fear circuits, and the inadequacy of our evolutionary responses. Most unexpectedly, she discovers the brain’s ability to do much, much better – with just a little help.
400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community, by Val Walker (Central Recovery Press 2020, 240 pages, $18.95 paperback)
As a single, fifty-eight-year-old woman, Val Walker found herself stranded and alone after major surgery when her friends didn’t show up. As a professional rehabilitation counselor, she was too embarrassed to reveal how utterly isolated she was by asking for someone to help. As she recovered, Val found her voice and developed a plan of action for people who lack social support, not only to heal from the pain of isolation, but to create a solid strategy for rebuilding a sense of community. 400 Friends and No One to Call spells out the how-tos for befriending our wider community, building a social safety net, and fostering our sense of belonging. On a deeper level, we are invited to befriend our loneliness and to open our hearts and minds to others.
Let’s Be Calm: The Moral Health Handbook for Surviving and Thriving During a Pandemic, by Alex Bruce (Independent 2020, 74 pages, $6.95 paperback)
An accredited meditation and mindfulness instructor, providing hundreds of people each month with the tools they need to reduce stress, increase positivity and build resiliency … This 60-page handbook will provide you with tools to remain positive and hopeful, skills to meditate, tips for resiliency, reminders for good health and suggestions for overall well-being during a pandemic and always. Take a breath and relax.
Editor’s note: Because this title is clearly aimed at the current crisis, Yale Climate Connections made an exception to its general rule against including self-published works in its bookshelves. The excerpt above, drawn from the author’s copy, is edited to shorten.
Learning from the experience
Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude, by Lionel Fisher (Simon & Schuster 2000/2001, 224 pages, $16.95 paperback)
Choosing to enrich your life by yourself is very different from being “lonely.” In Celebrating Time Alone, Lionel Fisher shares his personal reflections on solitude, brought into sharp focus by living alone for six years on a remote Pacific Northwest beach. He supplements his own reflections by interviewing men and women in sixteen states, in both rural and urban settings, who have stretched the envelope of their aloneness to Waldenesque proportions. All the material is intended to offer counsel, inspiration, affirmation, insights, encouragement, and advice on living well alone, to help learn to use solitude and periods of aloneness for self-discovery and personal growth – whether they choose aloneness or have it thrust on them.
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, by Mark O’Connell (Doubleday 2020, 272 pages, $26.95)0
We’re alive in a time of worst-case scenarios: The weather has gone uncanny. A viral pandemic has the power to draw our global community to a halt. Old postwar alliances are crumbling. Everywhere you look there’s an omen. How is a person supposed to live in the shadow of such a grim future? What does it mean to have children in such unsettled times? And what on Earth is anybody doing about it? Dublin-based writer Mark O’Connell is consumed by these questions – and, as the father of two young children himself, he finds them increasingly urgent. In Notes from an Apocalypse, he crosses the globe in pursuit of answers. Both investigative and deeply personal, Notes is a surprisingly hopeful meditation on our present moment. With humanity and wit, O’Connell leaves you to wonder: What if the end of the world isn’t the end of the world?
The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul, by Belden C. Lane (Oxford University Press 2019, 344 pages, $29.95)
In the face of climate change, species loss, and vast environmental destruction, the ability to stand in the flow of the great conversation of all creatures and the Earth can feel utterly lost to the human race. But Belden C. Lane suggests that it can and must be recovered, not only for the sake of endangered species and the well-being of at-risk communities, but for the survival of the world itself. The Great Conversation is Lane’s treatise on a spiritually centered environmentalism. At the core is a belief in the power of the natural world to act as teacher. In a series of personal anecdotes, Lane pairs his own experiences in the wild with the writings of saints and sages from a wide range of religious traditions. Each chapter offers guidance for entering once more into a conversation with the world.
Re-envisioning other pandemics
Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (Public Affairs 2017/2018, 352 pages, $16.99 paperback)
In this gripping narrative history, Laura Spinney traces the Spanish Flu of 1918–20 to reveal how the virus travelled across the globe, exposing mankind’s vulnerability and putting our ingenuity to the test. As socially significant as both world wars, the Spanish flu dramatically disrupted – and often permanently altered–global politics, race relations and family structures, while spurring innovation in medicine, religion and the arts. It was partly responsible, Spinney argues, for pushing India to independence, South Africa to apartheid, and Switzerland to the brink of civil war. With a death toll between 50 and 100 million people, the Spanish Flu also created a “lost generation.” Drawing on the latest research in history, virology, epidemiology, psychology and economics, Pale Rider masterfully recounts the catastrophe that forever changed humanity.
Also see: The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry (Viking 2004) and America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred Crosby (Cambridge University Press, 2E 2003).
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen (W.W. Norton 2012/2013, 592 pages, $18.95 paperback)
The next big human pandemic is likely to be caused by a new virus coming to humans from wildlife. Experts call such an event “spillover” and they warn us to brace ourselves. David Quammen has tracked spillovers from the jungles of Central Africa, the rooftops of Bangladesh, and the caves of southern China to the laboratories where researchers work in space suits to study lethal viruses. He illuminates the dynamics of Ebola, SARS, bird flu, Lyme disease, and other emerging threats and tells the story of AIDS and its origins as it has never before been told. Spillover reads like a mystery, full of mayhem, clues and questions. When the Next Big One arrives, what will it look like? From which host animal will it emerge? Will we be ready?
The End of October: A Novel, by Lawrence Wright (Penguin Random House 2020, 400 pages, $27.95)
At an internment camp in Indonesia, forty-seven people are pronounced dead with acute hemorrhagic fever. When epidemiologist Henry Parsons travels there on behalf of the World Health Organization to investigate, he learns that an infected man is on his way to join the millions of worshippers in the annual Hajj to Mecca. Now, Henry joins forces with a Saudi prince and doctor in an attempt to quarantine the entire host of pilgrims in the holy city. Already-fraying global relations begin to snap, one by one, in the face of a pandemic, and the disease slashes across the United States, dismantling institutions and decimating the population. In the End of October, Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright has given us an electrifying thriller.
Also see: Station Eleven: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf 2014).
Practicing care in a pandemic
Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats, by Robert Wuthnow (Oxford University Press 2010/2012, 294 pages, $30.95 paperback)
Nuclear weapons, pandemics, global warming: each threatens to destroy the planet, or at least to annihilate our species. Freud, Wuthnow notes, famously taught that the standard response to an overwhelming danger is denial. In fact, the opposite is true: we seek ways of positively meeting the threat, of doing something – anything – even if it’s wasteful and time-consuming. It would be one thing if our responses were merely pointless, he observes, but they can actually be harmful, modeling our reactions to new threats based on how we met previous ones. Offering insight into our responses to everything from climate change to flu epidemics, Be Very Afraid provides a new understanding of the human reaction to existential vulnerability.
Psychiatry of Pandemics: A Mental Health Response to Infection Outbreak, edited by Damir Huremovic (Springer Publishing 2019, 158 pages, $99.99 paperback)
Psychiatry of Pandemics begins with an historical overview of pandemics ranging from the Spanish flu of 1918 to the Zika outbreak of 2012. Acknowledging the new infectious disease challenges presented by climate change, the book considers how to prepare for these challenges from an infection and social psyche perspective. The text then reviews the community and cultural responses, emotional epidemiology, and mental health concerns in the aftermath of a disaster. Finally, the text examines situation-specific trauma, including quarantine/isolation, the mental health aspects of immunization and vaccination, survivor guilt, and support for healthcare personnel, providing guidance on the most alarming trends facing the medical community.
Pandemics, Publics, and Narrative, by Mark Davis and Davina Lohm (Oxford University Press 2020, 228 pages, $70.00)
This book examines how the general public experienced the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus outbreak by bringing together stories about individuals’ perception of their illness, as well as reflections on news, vaccination, social isolation, and other infection control measures. The book also charts the story-telling of public life, including the ‘be alert, not alarmed’ messages from the beginning of the outbreak through to the narratives that emerged later when the virus turned out to be less serious than initially thought. Providing unprecedented insight into the lives of ordinary people faced with the specter of a potentially lethal virus, Pandemics, Publics, and Narrative develops a novel ‘public health narrative’ approach of interest to health communicators and researchers.
Filed under: Michael Svoboda
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