In some very serendipitous timing, we ordered this book back in the fall, shortly before coronavirus made the news out of China. Spinney’s history of the 1918 flu pandemic has become so very relevant, and luckily this history is also very readable- she is a science journalist, so has lots of practice translating science jargon and telling non-fiction stories. The book is split into a number of sections with different focuses: the world that that flu emerged into (religious, superstitious, viruses as yet undiscovered, teeming with other illnesses like cholera and typhoid), the potential origin point (Kansas, China, France), comparisons and contrasts with earlier pandemics (the plague, the Russian flu of 1890), the measures we can take to limit the spread (no mass gatherings, social distancing!), the impact on arts, culture and science, and glimpses into the real lives of those who died and also those who lived. [On this last note: one of Spinney’s points that has really stuck with me was that when we look back to our ancestors who survived, it seems like this was the way things were meant to be- we don’t imagine a different past because our ancestors led to us. For those who lived through the pandemic, however, the loss of fiances or spouses meant an end to the future they had imagined, a future that was often hard to let go of].
While some of the information about pandemic spread (or limiting that spread) is no longer novel, Spinney’s account of the pandemic is well worth reading. I came out much more informed about pandemics generally and this 1918 one in particular, and in a time where things feel very uncertain, more knowledge is a balm. I also came out with more gratefulness for the science we do have, even if it doesn’t have all the answers, and empathy for the individuals who have the misfortune of catching an infectious virus. Where Station Eleven provided me with a fictional pandemic read, this was the non-fiction counterpart- something I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
I know the “Pandemic” bingo square wasn’t intended to be quite so literal, but here we are!