Infection by Volume

Headlines don’t end, they just run out of room. And even the stories that expand on their narrative just scratch the surface.. Our new feature is built on the premise that the stories that rivet our attention have a parallel life in the kind of news that stays news — the explanatory unfolding found in books, movies, and other cultural artifacts.

Our inaugural installment of Reading the Headlines is inspired — if we can use the word — by the looming presence of the H1N1 virus and the long shadow of the devastating 1918 influenza epidemic, which killed, often with immediate dispatch, between 30 and 40 million people.

We welcome your comments and additions to the books noted below, as well as suggestions for future lists.

You can deal with your H1N1 anxieties by obsessively tracking the virus’s domestic march on the Center for Disease Control’s website:

You can even expand your neurosis globally and monitor the World Heath’s Organization’s grimly granular updates:

Or, you can sublimate all that fear and pick up a good book, such as any of those we’ve listed here, each of which deals with contagion, whether literal or metaphorical, in its own insightful way.

1. The Great Influenza:
The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague
, John M. Barry, 2004.

Stewart Simonson, who was an Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the Department of Health & Human Services during the Bush administration, told me in an email that this book “literally changed the landscape of flu policy in the U.S. and can be credited with focusing Congress on the need to be ready for the next pandemics.” It’s a chilling history of the Great Influenza, capturing the extraordinary social panic — provoked by filled morgues, gravedigger shortages, bodies rotting at home — that spread in the midst of the ongoing anxiety of the First World War.

Barry doesn’t pull any punches about the Katrina-like failure of government to recognize and respond to the crisis.  A reviewer in the New England Journal of Medicine describes Barry’s take on the botch-job in Philadelphia: “Dr. Wilmer Krusen, a political appointee who was the director of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health…deliberately ignored warnings against a Liberty Loan parade, even though influenza had devastated the Navy Yard and begun to spread…. Within 72 hours, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. Within 10 days the epidemic exploded from a few hundred civilian cases to hundreds of thousands and from a daily rate of one or two deaths to hundreds.”

2. The Plague, Albert Camus, 1947.

The classic symbolic novel of a quarantined town starts with expiring rats and a series of “bewildering portents”, then escalates to the recognition of linked fates: “Once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life.”

Much of the story is told through the eyes of the existentially heroic Dr. Rieux, who — spoiler alert — in a surprise twist turns out to be the narrator. Rieux is deeply observant, foundationally cynical, yet marginally hopeful. He sees the residents as possessing “the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose.”

When the plague finally lifts, Rieux cannot fully rejoice: “He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

Camus is writing in parallel here: the epidemic is proxy for political sickness.  As Professor Tom Bishop, the Florence Gould Professor of French Literature at NYU, told me in an email: “Camus created a universal moral fable that applies not only to the fight against political totalitarianism but shows people of all places and all times that the struggle against all plagues is up to them…and we need always to remain vigilant — battles are won but need to be waged over and over.”

3. Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter, 1939.  

Katherine Anne Porter lived in Denver and wrote for the Rocky Mountain News when she came down with influenza, and lived to write about it. This novella is no doubt the first roman a cough. The plot is simple.  Miranda is a reporter for a local newspaper that’s populated with hard-boiled reporters. (Speaking of the epidemic, one of them says ironically “I read it in a New York newspaper, so it’s bound to be true.”) 


Miranda falls in a love with soldier on leave, gets sick and recovers — only to find out her beau has died of the flu himself.  But this is far from a saccharine story; it glints with serrated-tongued edges. Porter describes Miranda’s first realization of illness as follows: “I suppose I should ask to be sent home, she thought, it’s a respectable old custom to inflict your death on the family if you can manage it.”.

And there are some winding, ecstatic, lyrical passages in which the narrator describes her — and no doubt Porter’s — febrile state:  “Silenced, she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence…” 

4. They Came Like Swallows, William Maxwell, 1937.  

They Came Like Swallows is the second novel written by William Maxwell, the revered writer and fiction editor at The New Yorker for close to 40 years.  He worked with Updike, Salinger, Cheever, and Nabokov, and his light but resolute editorial hand is apparent in his own prose.

In this intimate, filigreed family novel that takes place in the Midwest in 1918, two young boys and their parents are stricken, but only their mother finally succumbs to the flu. World War I and the armistice play some throbbing background chords, as they do in so much influenza fiction.   

This is a miniaturist view of the epidemic, as you might expect, with no rolling paragraphs describing morgues and heaps of bodies; it’s more about the acoustics of a parent dying young than the clanging of a great social plague. Maxwell’s mother died of influenza when he was ten, and this novel, which is partly told through the eyes of the brothers, is profoundly autobiographical.  The author’s clean and worked lines burn; he is particularly good describing the inner life of children, capturing their painful private lives with exquisite warmth.

5. Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre, 1938.

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905, which would have made him an impressionable 13 during the 1918 epidemic.  His mother died of a fever when he was 15 months, so his early years were no doubt swept up in an emotional turmoil of death and abandonment.

I put Nausea on the list because its existential bleakness, and the “sweetish sickness” and disgust with the world that overtake Sartre’s protagonist Roquentin, can be read as a delayed philosophical response to the inexplicable horror and uncertainty of both the epidemic and war. Some research, in fact, could well be done into the effects of the epidemic on early 20th century philosophy and literature.

6. The Painted Veil, Somerset Maugham, 1925. 

I know, I know.  This Maugham warhorse — the inspiration for three different movies — is about cholera.  But let’s not split DNA pairs. H1N1 is a great excuse to dust this book off, because epidemic plays a starring — and ironic — role as a plot device, and because it’s a riff on the heroic doctor character, except with a twist.

When Walter, Kitty’s bacteriologist husband, discovers that she’s been cheating on him, he gives her an ultimatum: she can have a divorce, but her lover needs to leave his wife and marry her within week; or, she has to schlep with him to China where he’s selflessly going to treat cholera victims in a convent-turned-hospital. Kitty ends up going to China, where Walter dies as a result of testing a treatment on himself, and where she finds her own redemption.  (Selfless doctors using themselves as subjects is a pandemic meme.)

It’s melodramatic, but who can resist lines like: “After all they had gone through, when they were living amid these scenes of horror and desolation, it seemed inept to attach importance to the ridiculous act of fornication.”  It takes a kind of brilliance to use the word inept in that context, doesn’t it?

7. The Last Town on Earth, Thomas Mullen, 2006. 

A well-received first novel about a reverse quarantine that turns Camus upside-down:  a town in Washington called “Commonwealth” seals its borders to protect its healthy residents. For a while, the strategy works.  As one character described life inside:  “There was no war, no pestilence.  People around the globe were dying, dying from flu and pneumonia and aerial bombings and bayonets, but in Commonwealth, the last town on earth, people were safe.”

Eventually the flu breaks through. The novel is a taut progression that weaves together themes that include the fault lines of community, the hothouse of isolation, the morality of conscientious objectors, labor strife, and of course, once again, the heroic doctor. There actually is historical evidence for the reverse quarantine; in his Author’s Notes, Mullen writes of Gunnison, Colorado, which survived unscathed and is described in John Barry’s book (the first on our list).

8. No Laughing Matter, Joseph Heller, 1986

This choice, a cautionary tale of a vaccine gone very wrong, is only indirectly related (or at least we hope) to H1N1. In 1976, a Swine Flu vaccine was removed from the market when it turned out that one of its side effects was a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

Ten years later, out of the blue, novelist Joseph Heller contracted a case of GBS, and his various stages of decline, distress, and paralysis are limned with unblinking candor in No Laughing Matter.

The book might be the only recovery pas de deux in the canon, with alternating chapters written by Heller (as a patient’s memoir) and his friend, the artist and “itinerant herring-taster,” Speed Vogel (as a caretaker’s memoir).

Vogel writes: “After experiencing Guillain-Barré, Joe’s manifest behavior was so much nicer in every way that we, his friends, pondered how we could manage to give him another foreign ailment after he recovered fro this one…I am still working on it, for my sake as well as humanity’s.”

But don’t think of this as a journey of personal transformation.  It’s mordantly funny in Heller’s way, and his bedside became a kind of antiseptic Improv, a meeting place for friends who included Mel Brooks, Dustin Hoffman, and the hospital-phobic Mario Puzo, who quipped that “When they name a disease after two guys it’s got to be terrible.”

9. Purple Death: The Mysterious Flu of 1918, David Getz, illustrations by Peter McCarty, 2000 (Grades 3-5).

Not a book if you’re from the “Cover the kids’ ears and change the subject” school of parenting. But if you don’t mind exposing impressionable minds to the unremitting horror of the epidemic, and of World War I itself, this low-key book is a perfect introduction.

It comes at the story from the point of view of Camp Sherman in Ohio, where 8,000 boys were waiting to be shipped to Europe, where “Some could expect to have their legs blown off by land mines. Some could expect to be blinded by poisonous gas. A few would be driven mad by the noise, the stench, and the horrors of war.”

And that’s before it gets to the flu.  The book packs in a lot, hopscotching across the country to show the crises in different cities, and then moving into the science of the virus.   It shows how researchers sought for the microbe culprit in the 1930s and gives a quick lesson in DNA that includes a trip to Antarctica to defrost some victims.