A New Book on Plagues, Pandemics and Viruses

Today is the pub date for Heather Quinlan’s new book Plagues, Pandemics and Viruses: From the Plague of Athens to Covid-19. I have long been a fan of Quinlan’s documentary films; the new tome will not surprise in having a similarly breezy and populist tone, marked by a relentless curiosity and enthusiasm. For those who smell a rat (ha! I said “rat”) in the book’s timing, I happen to know it was in the works long before the present pandemic. Fortunately, the timing was such that the author was able to use the coronavirus as the climax to her history, and to anchor many centuries-old catastrophes with sobering relevance.

The title of the book indicates the scope of its reach. In keeping with the Visible Ink Press’s house style, it is a graphically interesting and accessible reference book. Personally, I felt myself drawn to pet topics related to my own work. For example scores of the showfolk I’ve written biographies about here died of syphilis or TB. And my present writing project relates to colonialism and Native Americans; the Black Plague in Europe led to the former; the latter were nearly wiped out by their defenseless exposure to small pox. These topics are necessarily grim, but the author possesses a winning cheekiness that forestalls the kind of despair that may emerge from the news of the day. If anything, one lesson that emerges from the story it tells is that humanity has emerged from much darker times in the past battered, but not beaten. At any rate, I highly reccomend this book as a holiday gift for the right person in your life (I’d have been the right person, if I didn’t already own a copy!) Inoculate yourself here.