From Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to José Saramago’s Blindness, Jill Lepore traces the portrayal of pandemics in literature through time. Again and again, these stories help us address what it means to be human.
Albert Camus once defined the novel as the place where the human being is abandoned to other human beings. The plague novel is the place where all human beings abandon all other human beings. Unlike other species of apocalyptic fiction, where the enemy can be chemicals or volcanoes or earthquakes or alien invaders, the enemy here is other humans: the touch of other humans, the breath of other humans, and, very often—in the competition for diminishing resources—the mere existence of other humans.
An important part of this question of humanness and suffering through each of these stories is the act of reading and books themselves. Lepore suggests that reading itself can sometimes be understood as a contagion infection on minds, while at other times it acts as an antedote.
Reading is an infection, a burrowing into the brain: books contaminate, metaphorically, and even microbiologically. In the eighteenth century, ships’ captains arriving at port pledged that they had disinfected their ships by swearing on Bibles that had been dipped in seawater. During tuberculosis scares, public libraries fumigated books by sealing them in steel vats filled with formaldehyde gas. These days, you can find out how to disinfect books on a librarians’ thread on Reddit. Your best bet appears to be either denatured-alcohol swipes or kitchen disinfectant in a mist-spray bottle, although if you stick books in a little oven and heat them to a hundred and sixty degrees Fahrenheit there’s a bonus: you also kill bedbugs. (“Doesn’t harm the books!”) Or, as has happened during the coronavirus closures, libraries can shut their doors, and bookstores, too.
In a seperate piece, Alain de Botton discusses Camus’ exploration of human suffering captured in his novel The Plague:
“The Plague” isn’t trying to panic us, because panic suggests a response to a dangerous but short-term condition from which we can eventually find safety. But there can never be safety — and that is why, for Camus, we need to love our fellow damned humans and work without hope or despair for the amelioration of suffering. Life is a hospice, never a hospital.
For a full list, Bryan Alexander has collated a list of texts on the plague, while Cory Doctorow has recorded a number of his own stories on the topic.