5 books about pandemics to read while social distancing

If COVID-19 is clouding your thoughts, these literary pandemics are gripping distractions.

by Britnee Meiser
07 April 2020, 5:39pm

In times of crisis, high levels of anxiety can make concentrating on a novel long enough to finish it feel like an impossible feat. It’s easier to turn our attention to mindless internet scrolling and menial clorox-wiping, where worry can still permeate every swipe. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by COVID-19, shifting your focus toward a fictional pandemic for a while might just be the perfect way to trick your brain into taking a break. And, if you’re self-isolating, reading a good book isn’t just a great way to get out of your head. It’s also the safest way to leave your home.

If you’re exhausted by the news, you haven’t left your apartment in weeks, and you’ve binge-watched everything from Love is Blind to Tiger King, consider our five favorite pandemic reads for a more meaningful distraction.


Severance by Ling Ma
When Shen Fever explodes across the world and life in New York City comes to a grinding halt, millennial workaholic Candace Chen hardly notices at first. She loves her job producing specialty bibles, craves the structure that comes from completing tasks, solving problems and following routines, so when she’s offered a bonus to keep working in the midst of the pandemic, it’s easy for her to say yes. Candace’s point of view offers a unique commentary on our society’s obsession with work. When she’s finally forced to stop, she gets a humbling reminder of the differences between surviving and actually living. Ling Ma’s debut novel is a moving tribute to the power of human connection and a sharp satire that puts capitalism in its rightful place.


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
How does art survive the apocalypse? That’s the central question of Emily St. John Mandel’s hauntingly beautiful novel about a troupe of actors and musicians after a flu pandemic wipes out civilization as we know it. A young actress named Kirsten witnesses Arthur Leander, a Hollywood icon, have a heart attack onstage. That night the pandemic arrives in the city, and within weeks, millions of people are dead and humanity is decimated. Twenty years later, Kirsten is touring with the troupe in the name of keeping the remnants of art alive when they encounter a violent prophet who threatens everything they stand for. Moving between past and present, the novel’s impressive structure and evocative portrait of humanity will suck you in from start to finish.


The Dreamers by Karen Thomson Walker
A mysterious virus that triggers perpetual sleep blooms in an isolated California college town. As medical professionals attempt to understand and contain it, the town’s occupants struggle to stay safe as everything they know descends into chaos around them. The narrative jumps between a college freshman, a young couple with a newborn baby, and a pair of kid sisters living with their survivalist father, painting a vivid picture of how and why different people act certain ways in times of crisis. This story gives you a meaningful, multi-faceted look at privilege and hysteria, is a profound meditation on memory and is lush with dreamy prose.


Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Part zombie thriller, part political horror, Whitehead’s unique novel follows sharp-shooter Mark Spitz after a global pandemic has separated humanity in two: the living and the living dead. Tasked with eradicating the infected from lower Manhattan, the narrative weaves through time and space as Mark attempts to rebuild the city while dealing with his Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD). Whitehead’s darkly funny social commentary regarding the structural and systemic inequities of society is apt for our times, while the plot is a fever dream full of twists and turns. In short, Zone One is a genre-bending literary masterpiece.


The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
Peng Shepherd’s compelling debut novel follows Ory and Max, husband and wife who are living in hiding from the Forgetting, a plague-like phenomenon that makes your shadow disappear, and then, piece by piece, takes your memories, too. As Ory and Max travel across the apocalyptic landscape that was once India in search of safety and answers, the terrors they face, both big and small, reflect a larger commentary on the power and necessity of human connection in times of crisis. A contemporary literary adventure story with hints of magical realism, the novel raises important questions about the essence of humanity and memory as survival.

Colson Whitehead
ling ma
social distancing
Emily St. John Mandel
Karen Thomson Walker
Peng Shepherd