Over the past few weeks, Americans’ everyday routines have been drastically altered by the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19. In the face of this global pandemic, we’ve all been asked to stay inside and limit in-person interactions. Yet it’s during these very moments that we may feel an even greater need to connect. For some, reading is a cure.
If there’s an upside to this period of “social distancing,” it might be an unfettered excuse for voracious readers to dive into all types of literature.
For more than one member of the PBS NewsHour’s book club with The New York Times, Now Read This, dystopian books that draw inspiration from extraordinary, real events — not unlike the one the world is facing right now — offer a potent draw.
In a post on the Now Read This Facebook page, member Carol Rhoades wrote, “With the craziness of the last couple of weeks, does anyone else feel like when the apocalypse does come we are going to be more like ‘The Road’ and less like ‘Alas, Babylon’?” And she asked others to share their favorite dystopian novels.
Not all of the people who responded are finding solace in books that ask dark “what if” questions — some wrote they take comfort in the novels of Jane Austen, for example. But many recommended works of literature that resonate in the current moment.
Below, we share some of their most popular answers.
“The Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio
Terrin Misty Haley recommended this 14th-century work, which is set in Florence at the time of the Black Death, a pandemic that killed more than 20 million people in Europe alone. The book recounts the experience of 10 young people who seek refuge in the countryside as other Florentines succumb to the plague — the renaissance version of “social distancing.” In a collection of 100 tales, Bocaccio touches upon themes well beyond disease, including the Italian class structure, religion, love and adultery.
“The Plague” by Albert Camus
Camus’ famous work about the inhabitants of an Algerian town who are stricken by the bubonic plague was published back in 1947, but it has struck a chord with readers today living through the coronavirus. Penguin, which publishes the English translation, said sales of the book were up 150 percent in February.
A number of readers said they found this book surprisingly uplifting, despite its title. “But what does it mean, the plague?” reads one famous line from the book. “It’s life, that’s all.”
“The Stand” by Stephen King
In this novel by one of the most prolific writers of horror and suspense, a patient escapes from a biological weapons facility carrying a mutated strain of the flu that kills 99 percent of the population within weeks. The book follows two leaders who emerge among the survivors, and how those who are still living coalesce around them.
“Hopefully not applicable for today, but I’ve read it more than five times,” Janet Greenlee said of the book. Romana Mead said she couldn’t help but draw parallels between the characters’ situation in King’s novel and this particular moment: “I keep asking my husband, ‘Are we in The Stand’?” she wrote.
“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel
Set two decades after a Swine flu pandemic wipes out 99 percent of the population, this Canadian novelist’s 2014 book follows a traveling Shakespeare theater company as they navigate a world that’s been deeply changed in the aftermath of the virus.
The book seems to have resonated deeply with many readers since the COVID-19 outbreak began to spread widely — so much so that Mandel recently told TIME that “it was a bad week to start reading ‘Station Eleven.’”
Emily Gorman Fancy said that she teaches the book to high school seniors: “If you haven’t read it yet, and you can handle something that might hit close to home right now, read it. It’s a beautiful book with many profound messages about the importance of art, the danger of blind allegiance, and our over-reliance on technology, to name a few things.”
“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
This post-apocalyptic novel is already well-known by many, as it was adapted into a film starring Viggo Mortensen in 2010. Although it doesn’t center around the aftermath of a pandemic per se, it follows a father and son navigating a perilous America where most people and resources have been wiped out.
“I have thought about “The Road” several times in the past few weeks,” Laurie Goodman Towle said.
“It was definitely a hard read, but I couldn’t put it down and thought about it for days after I finished it. Heavy,” wrote Carol Rhoades.
Raine Tyler Mammone added that “after 15 years and 1,300 other books, I still remember ‘The Road.’”
“Bring Out Your Dead” by J.M. Powell
This nonfiction book focuses on a different, historical outbreak: the 1793 great plague of yellow fever, which killed thousands in Philadelphia and brought the city to a halt.
Luisa Inez Newton said that she read Powell’s book last November. “At the time, some of the medical solutions of the day seemed a little comical to me while reading it — purging with mercury, bleedings, covering oneself with vinegar, etc.,” she wrote. Though not “ cheery,” she said that “it’s fascinating to read what medicine was like just after the American Revolution.”
“Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart
This 1949 novel follows Isherwood Williams and his family after “an unknown disease of unparalleled rapidity of spread and fatality” destroys civilization. In a review the year it was published, The New York Times wrote that the novel’s author, George R. Stewart, “makes the great calamity of this fantasy uncomfortably plausible.”
Seventy-one years later, many NewsHour readers agree. Sarah Richey Guenther said that it’s her favorite dystopian novel: “It’s a little dated but that’s what makes it interesting,” she wrote.
“I especially like it because it’s about where I live, but it’s generally applicable,” wrote Nancy Van House. “Man comes home from a remote mountain trip and finds he missed the epidemic that killed all but a handful of people world-wide.”
“Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World” by Laura Spinney
Many researchers and journalists have looked to the influenza epidemic of 1918 as a way to understand the current COVID-19 crisis. Laura Spinney’s book looks at the global toll of that disease, which claimed the lives of at least 50 million people, particularly those between the ages of 20 and 40.
The science journalist also writes about the measures put in place to slow the spread of the Spanish Flu, which were not unlike the current policies that many countries have put in place in light of novel coronavirus: “They had the kind of social distancing measures that we’re still using today: isolation, quarantine, masks, hand-washing, staggering rush hour so you don’t have massive crowds in the metro and the streets. Those are techniques that are very ancient. People have always understood you have to keep the healthy and the sick separate,” Spinney recently told Vox.
Virginia Kline Norris, who recommended the book, said it “provides evidence that social distancing worked then.”