A boomer’s books for the plague

Wants to read a “plague” book that doesn’t have “corona” in the title? From Glendale, California, writer Bill Cushing has two recommended reads for these dark days we’re in.

I recently retired, apparently at the right time, expecting to read more. But with all the forced time I’ve had at home, this is ridiculous. However, since we’ve all been stuck indoors and for some it hasn’t yet ended, how about using our time well?

You’d think that, studying literature, I’d have encountered Boccaccio’s Decameron before now, which Chaucer translated into English and then was inspired to write The Canterbury Tales. But I hadn’t, so I bought a copy last year. The lockdown became my best chance to actually get to it. I’m glad I read it at some point in life because even a somewhat “clunky” translation is worth the visit.

I knew that Chaucer, after translating it, was inspired, but readers can also see Boccaccio’s influence over other writers. In the opening tale, Boccaccio recounts the story of a con man gaining the Church’s admiration, using a character much like Moliere’s Tartuffe, with a trace of Nikolai Gogol’s Chichikov in Dead Souls.

One even sees traces of Shakespeare in the ribald, often “dirty” tales that are occasionally a dark but always fascinating peek into the human condition— something that hasn’t changed much despite all our other advances.

The writing style is very much in the oral tradition of storytelling as Boccaccio’s narrators regale each other during a time of plague, proving how important “stories” are to our spiritual, cultural, moral, as well as mental health. Anyone willing to “travel” about 700 years back will find a worthwhile literary journey here. Plus it’s easily found it online.

Although best known for his Dune series, Frank Herbert’s 1982 The White Plague may be just what the doctor ordered these days, when we’re all trying to figure out the plague we’re living with now.

In brief, Dr. John Roe O’Neill, an American biophysicist visiting Ireland on a research grant, witnesses his family killed during an IRA bombing. To say he “loses it” would be serious understatement. The book opens with an ancient Irish curse: “May the hearthstone of hell be his bed rest forever.”

Herbert then delivers on this hex.

Returning home, isolated and vengeful, O’Neill decides that since a political cause took his wife and children from him, he’ll reciprocate. Designing a genetic virus leaving males unaffected but killing females, he fashions the nickname name “The Madman” and releases his biological scourge.

Bill Cushing

His plague destroys the world in short order, causing whole nations to collapse, even forcing the Vatican to relocate to Philadelphia. As the world descends further, with self-isolated tribes killing outsiders, authorities who survive hunt for “The Madman,” but there is much more.

Like Thomas Mann’s allegorical Magic Mountain— using a tuberculosis sanitarium to examine European nations on the edge of World War I— Herbert’s book studies nations and their peculiarities.

Given the dire pandemic in the world today, Herbert’s book studies people in the direst situations in the past as well as their use and pursuit of power— all in under 500 pages, far fewer than the more ambitious Dune series.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these books— besides diving into some great writing— is that no matter how bad we think things are getting, they can probably be worse.


Bill’s book of poems is, “A Former Life.”

1 Comment

  1. I recommend “The End of October” by Lawrence Wright. He and a discussion of his novel recently broadcast on NPR. He began his novel in 2017 and finished mid-2019. It’s a fictional work involving a worldwide pandemic originating in China. Exceptional coincidence. (If you are currently over-stressed with COVID-19, this read may not be good for you at this particular time.)

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