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10 Dystopian Books to Read for Pandemic Perspective While Social Distancing

You'll get your mind off the news a bit more easily when your book of choice understands what you're going through.
Reading time 9 minutes

If there's one piece of advice that's been dominating the coronavirus pandemic, it's social distancing. Staying home is the most responsible way for us all to protect the outbreak from getting worse than it has to, but halting normal life for weeks or months on end can be a daunting task. So when you're tired of Netflix marathons, Zoom calls, and face masks while you work for home, why not escape with some dystopian books?

While reading for entertainment sounds great in theory, it can be hard to focus if your novel of choice is just a little bit too positive or misaligned with the times. A main character that's going about normal life just doesn't get it, whether it's a story focused on finding romance or a memoir written any time before we had to stay home due to a public health crisis. Perhaps the solution is to read some dystopian books that follow a fictional pandemic, so you can get your mind off the news headlines while still digesting a story that understands what the world is going through right now. With how downright apocalyptic some of the premises are, they just may help you to feel better about the social distancing spell you're currently in. Read on for our top ten pandemic-focused dystopian books, and get ready to have a pile of exciting page-turners to work through while you work from home.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924)

Just before World War I, young and naive Hans Castorp visits his cousin Joachim in the Berghof Sanatorium in Davos, in the Swiss Alps. Hans' stay gets longer as his own health declines and the weeks become years. Soon, he gets tuberculosis and learns from other fascinating patients: an Italian encyclopedist, a hedonistic Dutchman, and the enigmatic Clawdia Chauchat. Isolated from the rest of the world, Hans loses his bearings thanks to the sanatorium's consistent rituals. Thomas Mann wanted this dark humor dystopian novel to help his hero "to understand what it is to go through the deep experience of illness and death to arrive at a higher degree of reason and health," and perhaps that message will teach us something as we navigate a major pandemic a century later.

Have Mercy On Us All by Fred Vargas (2001)

In this Inspector Adamsberg novel, writer Fred Vargas puts plague center stage of his dystopian book. As black paint on Paris doors is linked to suspicious deaths, a town crier receives anonymous messages announcing the return of the "wrath of God." With the help of scholar Decambrais, Adamsberg tries to unravel why this is happening and prevent panic from spreading in the capital.

La Passe Dangereuse

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1926)

Pretty and conceited, Kitty Garstin agrees to marry Walter, a bacteriologist and physician, out of fear that her younger sister will beat her to this milestone. She leaves for Hong Kong with her slightly dull husband and almost immediately begins an affair with a superficial diplomat, who is also married. The drama of the affair eventually mixes with that of a cholera epidemic in China, where Walter has gone to help. Deeper than it seems, this novel by W. Somerset Maugham, who also studied medicine, was adapted for film in 2006, starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. With two ways to experience the story of this dystopian book, you can keep yourself occupied for even longer.

Plague and Cholera by Patrick Deville (2012)

This novel, which won the Femina Prize in 2012, passionately romanticizes the life of bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. A prominent member of the Pasteur Institute, Yersin discovered the bacterium that causes the plague, which was named Yersinia pestis in his honor, but abandoned his career to devote himself to his multiple passions (like botany, architecture, and mechanics). In 1894, he discovered the bacterium that would bear his name in Hong Kong, where a terrible plague epidemic raged on, before developing a vaccine. Deville apprehends this biography of Yersin as the mad race of an idealist, who, far from being a scientist stuck in his laboratory, was an adventurous hero in his own way.

The Stand by Stephen King (1978)

A super flu virus goes around an American army research base, then spreads outside thanks to a soldier who flees and infects everyone who crosses his path. This highly lethal disease has a contamination rate of 99.4%, and in a few weeks, the whole world is affected. Civilization disappears, leaving only a handful of survivors who were naturally immune to the disease. Among Stephen King's most powerful novels—and, we hope, not too visionary—The Stand mercilessly criticizes an America without morals, obsessed with money and power (today, Stephen King is one of the most fervent critics of Donald Trump). Though many may freak out over how close this dystopian book hits home, the author promises that he believes coronavirus will have a much less obliterative fate, especially if we take precautions.

Illness as Metaphor

Illness as a Metaphor & AIDS and its Metaphors by Susan Sontag (1978 and 1988)

A brilliant compilation by American philosopher and activist Susan Sontag, this book brings together two works written ten years apart. The first relates to cancer, with a detailed pathology that Sontag links to classic texts from the likes of Keats, Dickens, Baudelaire, Henry James, and James Joyce, dissecting the ideologies behind the demonization of certain illnesses and the ensuing guilt for the patient. The second concerns AIDS, a "new plague" still full of mysteries for the medical community, which, in the 1980s, resuscitated the great fear of a pandemic, especially tied to the LGBTQ communities. With many comparing and contrasting coronavirus with the AIDS crisis, now is the perfect time to educate yourself on the social, political, and ideological aspects so you can develop your own opinion.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

This sci-fi fable follows the path of an 8-year-old girl, Kirsten, who appears in a play and witnesses the death of a legendary actor on stage. In the weeks that follow, a sudden pandemic wipes out a large part of humanity, leaving only a few survivors in small scattered cities. Twenty years later, Kirsten is still part of a traveling troupe of performers, which tours in Michigan and promotes culture as an essential element of survival. On her way, she will follow disturbing disappearances and meet many intriguing figures. This exciting dystopian book will be adapted this year into an HBO Max series starring Mackenzie Davis, Himesh Patel, and Gael García Bernal, so now is the time to read up before everyone is talking about the next streaming hit.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (1985)

This dystopian book imagines a sensual and dangerous world where illness, love, and death are dizzyingly intertwined. At the end of the 19th century, in a small Caribbean town, young telegraphist Florentino Ariza falls in love with a beautiful schoolgirl, Fermina Daza. They exchange letters for three years until Fermina decides to marry Doctor Juvenal Urbino, who heroically treats the sick during a cholera epidemic. Florentino, desperate, continues to love Fermina from afar. Gabriel García Márquez dissects love in all its forms, even the most toxic, like a disease of the soul without a cure.

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London (1912)

This dystopian book by Jack London takes place in 2073, sixty years after a pandemic has ravaged our entire civilization (yikes). In a decivilized California, an old professor tries to teach a group of unknowing children about the world before the epidemic and the selfishness that existed before the illness. It preserves a last center of civilization in the form of a library hidden in a cave, telling a story that's humbling while putting our current situation into perspective.

La Mort A Venise

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912)

Adapted for film in 1971 by Luchino Visconti, Death in Venice is the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous German writer who begins a journey in Venice before the First World War. At the Hotel du Lido, he meets and follows Tadzio, a teenager with fascinating beauty. In the grip of inner torments, Gustav contracts a kind of Asian cholera that is ravaging the city. Thomas Mann masterfully links the desire for love and the desire for death in an obsessive tale, which we recommend reading while listening to a calming symphony to maximize the beautiful dystopia.

BONUS: A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead (2010)

For the little ones (and the adults who would rather not read a dystopian book), this story follows Amos, a zookeeper loved by all animals who wakes up one day with a cold and must stay in bed, resulting in all his friends stopping by to help him through the difficult time. The book was inspired by an elephant drawing that Erin E. Stead had dropped years before, which gave husband Philip C. Stead the idea to make a children's book with her, to make her want to create again. This book has earned many awards and will remind you of the power of friendship, even when we're only contacting our loved ones over video call.

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