Humans and Disease: A Reading List

For our podcast episodes ‘Keeping Quiet’ and ‘Hitched to the Universe’, on the theme ‘Connection & Care’ in times of Covid-19, we reference a number of books. Here’s a list of them alongside snippets of their reviews to tell you why they’re really interesting and relevant to these times.  

  • Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic – David Quammen

This pre-sentient book examines the emergence and causes of new diseases all over the world, describing a process called “spillover” where illness originates in wild animals before being passed to humans and discusses the potential for the next huge pandemic. 

  • Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola – Sonia Shah

Shah shows her knack for crisp analysis and compelling storytelling, untangling the complex dynamics of infectious disease while suggesting promising new pathways in public health—and the need for changes in the public’s sensibilities—to confront epidemic threats (Source).

  • The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History – John M Barry

Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research, The Great Influenza provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon. As Barry concludes, “The final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that…those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart. (Source)”  

  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World – Steven Berlin Johnson 

Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories and inter-connectedness of the spread of disease, contagion theory, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a riveting history and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in (Source).

  • The Making of a Tropical Disease: A Short History of Malaria – Randall Packard

Packard, true to his historical roots in the political economy of disease, treatment and prevention has written much more than a biography of malaria. Paying due respect to the sciences of entomology, parasitology and, in passing, immunology, Packard reminds us that malaria is about people and that people live in multiple contexts. We need to understand these contexts of people’s lives, at the political, social and economic levels, to appreciate the complexity of living and dying with this ‘burden of disease’ (Source).

  • A World Without Us – Alan Weisman

Written largely as a thought experiment, it outlines, for example, how cities and houses would deteriorate, how long man-made artifacts would last, and how remaining lifeforms would evolve. Weisman concludes that residential neighborhoods would become forests within 500 years, and that radioactive waste, bronze statues, plastics, and Mount Rushmore would be among the longest-lasting evidence of human presence on Earth (Source). Although this book isn’t about infectious diseases per se, it is a thought experiment which speaks to the relationship of humans with the planet which has been the subject of our podcasts.