Delicious, smart reads about dangerous, nasty germs.
The germs have been busy. In the United States this year alone, we’ve lost people both to old enemies such as whooping cough and to relatively new spillovers from other animals, such as hantavirus and West Nile virus, which killed more than 240 Americans this year, a record. Diseases we've come to think of as utterly foreign, such as dengue fever, are spreading through the United States. Meanwhile, further afield but far too near, we’ve seen two separate Ebola outbreaks; one of Marburg; alarming blips of Q fever; an unsettling and unsettled game of whack-a-mole in the Mideast with a new SARS-like coronavirus; and the news that because gonorrhea has now developed resistance to yet another antibiotic, we possess just one that still gives pause to this old intimate. If that drug stops working before we develop a better one, expect a steady drip of ugly cases.
More bad-bug news pops up almost weekly, and it stands to get worse for a while, maybe for decades. More bacterial strains will develop antibiotic resistance, and our continuing disruption of virus-rich and fungus-rich ecosystems worldwide will invite yet more pathogens to make us part of their life cycles. We will live increasingly in a world where you might die because a bat happened to sleep in a certain tree in Tanzania or a particular robin landed in your backyard.
Pandemic diseases hold an irresistible allure for both writers and readers, as they involve threats both universal and personal, deep scientific mysteries from cellular to ecosystem levels, and urgent scientific sleuthing with high stakes. If the subject sometimes lends itself to oversimplified and sensationalistic journalism, it has also inspired a bounty of writing that is riveting while being thoughtful, nuanced, and deeply informed. And this work comes in every form and length, from 140-character tweets to 600-page global tours.
Here I offer a guide to the best of this work. I’ve drawn from my own reading and from the suggestions of top infectious-disease writers (more on them shortly). We’ll start long, with books, and end, as we should, with tweeted expirations of germ-inflected wisdom.
We face an embarrassment of riches here, and if it’s hard to know where to start, it’s easy to name a fivesome that will immerse you in the drama of pandemics both past and future while giving a fine understanding of the science.
Leading the way almost 20 years ago, and still absolutely trenchant today, is Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, which vividly and judiciously reports the global forces creating a new infectious age. It remains essential reading, with astounding prescience.
Warm from the presses, meanwhile, comes David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic—one of the year’s best books of any kind. This rich, engrossing work entrances as much with its darting literary elegance and deep humanity as with its exquisitely measured, layered reveal of the global strands binding us to a world of beauty and death.
Equally riveting is Maryn McKenna’s way-too-close-to-home SuperBug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA. This bacterium (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is everywhere these days, including, perhaps, on your keyboard and almost certainly on your nose. As McKenna makes vivid, its spread and its increasing resistance to antibiotics can turn a routine cut or hospital visit into a deadly saga.
Finally, there are the classics Microbe Hunters, Paul de Kruif’s 1934 account of how the bug-hunters got started, and John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, which makes scary reading anytime near flu season.