The Last Word –                        A pandemic reading guide

January 17th, 2021The Last Word – A pandemic reading guide

IT LOOKED like Victoria had beaten COVID-19 into submission, and then new cases began leaking in from NSW.

Here in California, hospitals are reporting record numbers of cases and deaths related to COVID-19, as we experience another wave of infection and as a vast number of Americans continue to refuse to wear masks or accept the reality of the pandemic. Recently a new, reportedly more infectious, strain of the virus has found its way to the US from the UK. And then on December 29, 2020, the Washington Post newspaper carried this headline: “COV-19 ‘not necessarily the big one’, WHO warns”. So, happy 2021. With that in mind, here are a few books to read during a pandemic.

  1. The Stand, by Stephen King
    King published The Stand in 1978 but has revised it a couple of times, so even if you’ve read it years ago, it’s worth picking up a new copy. Warning: at a Wikipedia-estimated 1152 pages, you might need help getting it into the car.
    It is only tangentially about a pandemic but what happens is, an extremely snotty, man-made flu-like disease called Captain Trips (and why are we stuck with a nerdy virus like COVID-19 – why can’t we have a bug with a cool name?) wipes out almost the entire population of the Unites States – the rest of the world doesn’t figure in the story – and that’s about it.
    This being Stephen King, of course, the next thousand or so pages involve supernatural powers influencing survivors to coalesce into two groups – one good and the other evil – who battle it out for control of the world. Sure, yep, it’s for control of the US, but we’re Americans and don’t really care about anyone but ourselves.
    For those who prefer to consume their literature through the medium of television, The Stand has been made into a mini-series twice – once in 1994, and a new version that is streaming in the US now. Although the ’94 series is OK, and we’ve only seen the first episode of the new one, it’s safe to say that neither captures the epic sweep of the book.
  2. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
    Matheson was one of the great masters of horror literature, and this novel from 1954 was one of his best.
    The story has twice been adapted for the cinema. In 1964 Vincent Price was masterful in a version titled The Last Man on Earth, an excellent attempt at capturing the mood of Matheson’s tale. As for the 2007 movie with Will Smith, it’s barely adequate and takes too many liberties with the book.
    Matheson’s story takes place in a US city – it could be Los Angeles – after a disease has left a man named Robert Neville as the last human. But he isn’t alone – the pandemic disease has turned everyone but Neville into vampires.
    It might sound like a silly idea, but Matheson’s story goes deep into Neville’s loneliness, his longing for a sexual partner, his crushing sadness over the loss of his wife and child; all the while, vampires come to his house each night to taunt him, calling out his name, trying to smash their way into his fortress-like home. It’s horror writing at its finest.
  3. Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig
    Wendig is one of the most prolific writers you’ve probably never heard of, unless you’re a fan of comic books spun off from the Star Wars franchise.
    This is a recent book, published in 2019, and at almost 800 pages, even a writer of Wendig’s fecundity would’ve had to have started it before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, which makes it extremely prophetic.
    The book takes its time getting into its main plot, and to discuss it in detail would be to drop too many spoilers. Suffice it to say, many elements of the story could have come directly from the pages of any newspaper, populated by heroic, disease-fighting public health workers; heavily armed, right-wing lunatic militias; duplicitous, useless politicians; and a frightened, angry general population.
    It is worth noting, and should indicate some of the book’s plot arc, that Wendig made the news in 2018 when he was fired by the Marvel company from his job as a writer of Star Wars books and comics, because of a series of tweets he sent out that were highly critical of US conservative policies and politicians, expressed in some, shall we say, colourful language.
  4. The Great Influenza, by John M Barry
    For non-fiction readers, and first published in 2004, this is one of the best books available on the 1918-20 influenza pandemic that killed “more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history”.
    Barry does an amazing job telling the story in a highly readable style while including the dark details and the enlightening science. It is unfortunate that this book resonates so profoundly in today’s world.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former editor with The Age and journalist with The Local. A couple of years back Jeff, his wife Carol and their dog Scout moved from Wheatsheaf to California, America to be with family. They have since adopted Joey, pictured above with Jeff, who is now The Local’s US correspondent. Jeff, not Joey. He hopes for a St Kilda premiership one day. Again, Jeff.

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