It’s amazing how many pandemic books there are, and how thoroughly the idea of a global pandemic had crept into our popular culture well before the current situation. My daughter and I watched the Tom Hanks movie Inferno over the weekend, mostly because we wanted to gaze at the city of Florence. It’s not a great movie, but it is visually stunning in several ways. The plot is not something I gave much attention to when I first saw the film a couple of years ago: a rich Ted-talking eccentric decides to kill off most of the people of the world to save the Earth from over-population and the ravages 16 billion people would mean for other species and the health of the biosphere.

When I first saw the film in 2016, I regarded the plotline (will the vial of lethal germs be released or not?) as nothing but the usual “James Bond” setup for whatever else happened in the film. This time I watched it with greater alertness.

The fact is, of course, that COVID-19 is a serious global nuisance that has disrupted the lives of all Americans in a way that almost nobody could have predicted (well, there is Bill Gates, of course), but it is not the Black Plague, which swept away somewhere between one-fourth and one-half of all Europeans between 1348-1352, or the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia, which killed one in 10 inhabitants of America’s largest city in 1793, or the Spanish Flu, which killed somewhere between 57 and 100 million people worldwide in 1918.

If the coronavirus eventually kills 5 million people worldwide, and a couple of hundred thousand Americans before the vaccines gallop in to save the day a year or 18 months hence, it will have been a comparatively minor event in the history of global pandemics. The moment when it appeared that the hospital and medical infrastructure of New York might collapse has now passed. And though the death toll continues to climb towards perhaps 150,000 American dead by Aug. 1, 2020, the national dread that created a sustained will-we-survive and how-will-we-cope conversation in virtually every household in the United States is mostly over. The question now is when and how (and if) the country can return to what the late John McCain called regular order.

In the past two months I have read more than a dozen pandemic books, from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1721), to Stephen King’s endless The Stand (1978). They are all interesting. If you outline the takeaway insights from these books, written over the span of many hundreds of years, they all make essentially the same points:

  1. Every government starts in denial, moves through some form of coverup, and eventually has to come to terms with the facts on the ground. 
  2. The rich flee to their country estates (or the Hamptons) and whine about all the inconvenience. 
  3. The poor (as always) do most of the suffering, not merely because they are poor and have less access to the Maslovian necessities of life, but because they wind up putting themselves into harm’s way to help other people and even help the undeserving rich. 
  4. The only sure methods of dealing with the epidemic (before the coming of vaccines) are social distancing, masks and the avoidance of direct body contact, and quarantining — and these do work.
  5. Economic activity grinds to a halt, but new forms of employment emerge, such as enforcing quarantines or monitoring the spread of the disease through contact tracing. 
  6. People who have contracted the disease but who do not yet exhibit symptoms are the principal transmitters of the disease to others.
  7. Government has no choice but to subsidize the lives of people who have no savings and cannot work, because the alternative is food riots, looting, and perhaps revolution.
  8. Quacks, charlatans, and mountebanks abound, as always, to exploit exploitable people. 
  9. Bad leaders and some portions of the population spend their time embracing and spreading conspiracy theories and searching for some group, some nation, some tribe to blame for the catastrophe.
  10. Social mores, including sexual codes, begin to break down as people slowly adopt an “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you shall certainly die” attitude. 
  11. The natural sociability of humanity is such that we invariably rush back into the public square too soon, before the disease has been mastered, thus causing a second or a third wave of infection and death.

You can find some variation of these common dynamics in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Defoe’s Journal, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Lawrence Wright’s The End of October, and the single best work of literature ever written about epidemics, Albert Camus’ 1947 novel La Peste (The Plague). Before I explore Camus’ world (and worldview), however, I want to address the paradox of obsessing over plague literature.

Epidemic Literature

If you ask a thousand people to name the classics of epidemic literature you are likely to hear two titles over and over again: Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 Decameron and Camus’ 1947 The Plague. The Decameron is one of the world’s great books, still a central text in university core curriculum programs even in the age of snowflakes and trigger warnings. It is a compilation of 100 short tales — some of them three pages in length, some 20, written in classical Italian prose by one of the proto-humanists of what would soon become the Renaissance. In fact, Boccaccio (1313-75) is considered the first great master of Italian prose, at a time when virtually all men of letters still wrote in Latin. He occupies a place just after Dante (who died in 1321) and slightly more medieval — in outlook — than his contemporary friend Petrarch (1304-74).

The organizing framework for these hundred tales is the Black Plague. Ten young Florentines, seven women and three men, meet in the cathedral to pray for an end of the epidemic. They decide to flee to the hills surrounding Florence to escape the social density of the plague. They wind up moving from rural estate to rural estate and, to while away their time in quarantine, they agree each to tell one story a day for 10 days. This produces 100 tales ("decameron" is Greek for 10 days). The tales vary in quality as well as length. A kind of Rabelaiseque bawdiness is the dominant theme: plenty of infidelity, cuckoldry, sexual hypocrisy, bed tricks, beatings, drenchings in excrement, mistaken identity, corrupt clergy, greed, gullers victorious and gullers gulled. Some of the tales make for pretty uncomfortable reading in our more enlightened and sensitive era, but even the raw and disturbing tales are told with rollicking exuberance. The Decameron reads like a cross between Married with Children and the Three Stooges.

I do think the Decameron is a book that every well-educated individual should read at some point in life, and this would seem to be a good time. Virtually none of the hundred tales have anything to do with the plague, but they are all informed and shadowed by the omnipresence of death, suffering and grief in Boccaccio’s Italy. Lovers of English literature will want to know Boccaccio’s work if only because he had such a profound impact on Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400). The Knight’s Tale, the Clerk’s Tale, and Chaucer’s masterpiece, Troilus and Criseyde, all mined Boccaccio as a principal source, and the raucous and somewhat disturbing Reeve’s Tale was lifted with few adjustments from one of Boccaccio’s most absorbing tales (Day Nine, Tale Six).

But the most important purpose of the Decameron is that it was not about the plague — not beyond the framing device of a temporary escape from the Black Death. The Decameron is escape literature — something to concentrate on other than the plague, which killed about a third of the people of Florence. Just for a moment imagine 2.5 million residents of New York dead by Labor Day, or 100 million Americans dead before Christmas, if you want to have some sense of universal and apocalyptic panic. Boccaccio’s boisterous tales are about anything but the plague, because his contemporaries needed relief, as we surely do, from the almost inevitable impulse to think about nothing but the plague.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic got our attention in late February, people have been binge-watching their favorite television series: Law and Order in its several iterations, Blue Bloods, Tiger King, the new 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan, the complete run of Fleabag, etc. Hulu and Law and Order (on WE TV) have actually created delightful new TV commercials poking fun at binge-watch escapism, just as a wide range of recent commercials feature the participant grids that remind us of Hollywood Squares.

We can (and do) obsess about the current crisis (how could we otherwise?), but since we are bombarded with COVID-19 news and commentary on the 24/7/365 cable networks, in the L.A. and New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, this may be a good time to turn to escape literature instead. The entire run of NCIS or Chicago P.D. may help us “while away the time,” but they cannot really be said to be spiritually uplifting and nobody, not even postmodernists, regards them as great art.

This may be your time to take on the really big reading projects — you know, those books you have always said you wanted to read if you ever had the time, and now you have time in whole glorious swaths. Books are inexpensive entertainment, particularly thanks to the cheapening of out-of-copyright books at Google Books and other digital providers. Now would seem to be the last chance you are really going to get to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, St. Augustine’s City of God, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Joyce’s Ulysses, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the six novels of Jane Austen (mercifully short by these standards), Churchill’s six-volume The Second World War, or, for that matter, the complete Harry Potter series. These great books — great by any standards — have the capacity not only to occupy a large swath of your shelter time, but to deepen your life, lift your spirit, argue with your soul, and expose you to some of the best sentences that have ever passed through the pen of humankind.

If not now, when?

There Is a “Plague” in Each of Us

If you want a starter classic that is also a book about an epidemic, I suggest Camus’ The Plague, a mere 320 pages. I have almost read it several times over the past 20 years, but never actually did until now. Now I have read it twice in the space of a month, and I know I will read it again before we come up for air. It’s the fictional story of a plague that rocks the city of Oran on the Mediterranean coast of Africa sometime in the middle of the 20th century. It is written in beautiful spare and unadorned prose. (I can only imagine what it must be to read it in French). There is almost no figurative language in the novel — no similes or metaphors, no Ciceronian rhetoric, no literary flourishes or attempts at purple prose. It is the story of a handful of individuals who find ways to cope with the epidemic, particularly the central figure of The Plague, Dr. Bernard Rieux, 35 years old, unheroic, essentially selfless, as he moves from patient to patient trying to cure those who can be cured and ease the suffering, both physical and mental, of the rest.

The Plague contains the usual elements: initial denial, the unprepared leadership, the attempt to cover up the crisis to avoid hurting tourism and the economy of the town, half-hearted and misguided attempts to stop the spread of the disease, etc. But that is not what Camus is trying to get at, exactly. Albert Camus (1913-1960), the author of The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, The Fall, and The Stranger, is sometimes regarded as one of the 20th-century existentialists, but he was more precisely an absurdist. He believed that there is nothing inherently meaningful or meaning-giving in life, that each of us, as he puts it, “has to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.” Since, for Camus, there is no afterlife (no heaven, no hell), and there is no God we can communicate or negotiate with, each of us is saddled with the burden of constructing a meaningful life. All that Camus insists upon are truth and authenticity. We are free, of course, to adopt one of the existing softwares — Lutheranism, Islam, Confucianism, Judaism, materialism — but he makes it clear that he despises those who settle for one of the off-the-shelf systems rather than explore and formulate meaning for themselves.

When a close friend tells Dr. Rieux that he is doing heroic work in Oran, the protagonist bats that praise away and says that all one can do in the face of a calamity like the plague is be decent and serve others (a few or the many) as best we can. There is nothing more than that. Camus insists that we all have the “plague” in one way or another. It is sometimes said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. For Camus it is just death. Every person now reading this essay has an appointment with death and it is the one appointment that nobody has ever missed. Some will die of COVID-19 or its attendant maladies. A few will die in car accidents. Some will have heart failure while jogging. Another gets breast or pancreatic cancer. Most die of old age.

There is “plague” in each of us. What we choose to call THE plague (in our case coronavirus or COVID-19) is, for Camus, just a very concentrated form of the quintessential human condition — our date with death. The seed of annihilation is active like a virus in each of us and nobody gives us the timeline. Each of us, therefore, has a duty to think about life in the shadow of this wider, more metaphoric “plague,” and to re-define our lives accordingly. If there is meaning in the universe, each of us provides it in our work, our loves, our friendship, our avocations, and our thoughts.

Camus also argues that there is in most of us a moral plague equally debilitating as the physical variety. The plague is our moral indifference to the unnecessary suffering of others, including the suffering that we may not directly endorse, but which occurs under our implied consent to the current social contract. Thus a cruise missile attack that shatters a wedding in Afghanistan, an execution at a Texas prison, the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani or, for that matter, our continuing industrial assault on the biosphere — these, for Camus, are another manifestation of the plague.

It’s a great book. Even if we don’t agree with its outlook, which we may see as bleak, but which Camus thought of as magnificently liberating and exhilarating, The Plague will make you think, ask all sorts of Socratic questions of yourself, and form resolutions about how you intend to measure your life after we get through this global catastrophe.

At the heart of the novel Camus presents two sermons by the same Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, separated by the horrible and graphically described death of an innocent child. In the first sermon, Father Paneloux makes it clear that everyone in his congregation deserves God’s wrath. God has tried again and again to get our attention through mercy and forbearance. Now He has finally decided we will only pay attention through massive chastisement. In the second sermon a few weeks later, Father Paneloux — chastened by what he witnessed on the boy’s deathbed — tries to soften his position a bit. Still, he winds up saying, if you are a Christian you are either in or you are out. You cannot be both. If you believe that God is all-powerful and the ruler of the universe, then you must accept the death of the innocents, because if you try to discriminate between those whose deaths you can accept and those you cannot find a way to accept, then you have effectively ceased to be Christian. Yes, bad things happen to good people, but Christianity does not permit you to determine when you accept God’s supervision of the universe and when you wish to rage at him. You are either all in or all out.

Camus makes it clear that he does not accept either of Father Paneloux’s positions. He wants to force us to wrestle with the problem of good and evil, life and death, flourishing and suffering, a completely naturalistic (i.e., scientific) response to plague and a religious response. As the third decade of the 21st century begins, most of humanity is so thoroughly secularized, even nominal Christians, that this debate gets less widespread attention than it did at the heart of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the problem of finding meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe does not go away, and as you read these words, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are asking, “Why me? Why us? Why?”

I’m going to make my run at The Brothers Karamazov in the next few weeks. I’ve now seen enough Law and Order SVU with my daughter to last a lifetime, and not one episode has inspired an hourlong conversation about life. Everyone gets to decide how to cope, of course, but if you are a reader, I urge you to go find that big book you have been promising yourself for an awkwardly long period of time. You will be greatly enriched by the conversations that follow.

For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour.