Grist from the Mill–July
Musings on Books and Writing by Kelt Wilska
During the present COVID-19 pandemic, Shaker Mill Books has noticed a surge in interest for a most surprising genre: pandemic literature. From the apocalyptic 2014 novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, to medical histories like John M. Barry’s 2004 The Great Influenza, readers are immersing themselves in the world of viruses and plagues. Why? Since we’d all prefer scientists to be researching vaccines instead of literary trends, all we can do as readers is what we do best: read and wonder and speculate. Satisfying both a morbid fascination with the past and an unshakeable curiosity about the many possible futures that lie ahead, pandemic literature has always addressed our deepest fears and uncertainties.
Undoubtedly one of the most well-known precursor texts for all things pandemic is the Old Testament. The Ten Plagues of Egypt in Exodus comprise a tale of pestilence, bubbling boils, lice, and the death of firstborn children. For this final plague, the Israelites marked their doors with lamb’s blood to avoid God’s punishment, culminating a pandemic parable that explores the connection between morality and sickness.
Over a thousand years later came a more autobiographical story, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Technically historical fiction, Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) weaves a pandemic narrative through the eyewitness accounts of his uncle during the 1655 Great Plague of London when the bubonic plague ravaged its streets for a devastating final time. Blending scientific figures and vivid descriptions of “a world of corpses strewn in streets and pits,” Defoe has given readers a grim and cautionary tale of nature’s fickle ruthlessness.
These are but a sampling of pandemic stories passed on through printed page. We read them to inform our present and our future, but why do we write them? To lecture? To warn? Or perhaps we write them simply to express our fears during a frightening and unpredictable time, hoping for a flicker of empathy from a reader far in the future.