If you teach high school students and would like them to develop a historical perspective on the great plagues and pandemics in history, we would like to suggest you let them know about the books on the list that we have compiled below.
One reassuring lesson these books teach is that the current Covid-19 pandemic, horrible as it is, might not be the most frightening or devastating world health disaster in history. Plus, these books contain a varied and useful selection of topics for students to research and explore. What public health initiatives were used to combat these prior pandemics, for example? What countermeasures did people use to combat them, and are there lessons we can learn? How was society changed, and what changes are still visible today?
The Decameron by Giovanni Bocaccio (many editions) – This classic book begins with a detailed and harrowing account of the plague that decimated the people of Florence in the 14th Century. The rest of the book, similar in its story-by-story format to The Canterbury Tales, is made up of stories told by a group of people who have escaped the plague and are traveling outside of the city. Their stories, which are funny, sad, bawdy, and everything in between, can be seen as a testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity.
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (many editions) – A plague swept through England in 1665, killing nearly 100,000 people in London alone. Defoe was only a child at the time, but his fictionalized chronicle of that calamity has become a classic in the literature of pandemics.
The Plague by Albert Camus (Vintage Books) – This modern novel, written by Camus in 1947, is a fictionalized account of an historical plague that decimated the population of a North African town in 1849. It is harrowing but offers deep insights into people’s psychological responses to adversity.
The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry (Penguin Books) – This is not a work of fiction, but a history of the scientific response to the influenza epidemic of 1918. Rich in detail and a near-journalistic approach to history, it would be a great book to assign to students of both science and history.
Plagues in World History by John Aberth (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) – A fine work of scholarship, this book offers a comparison of the ravages wrought on people by AIDS, cholera, influenza, smallpox, and tuberculosis. It can help all your students understand the impact of Covid-19 within an historical context. And it brings the reassurance that mankind has overcome a great many pandemics and plagues throughout history. Perhaps we are on our way to overcoming this one too?
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