Reading on a Theme – The Black Plague


Probably like many people, I get on specific kicks in my reading. I read a book, and that leads me to be interested enough in the subject that I start reading more on the topic, and then before I know it a have a shelf devoted to the topic and probably have become somewhat of a bore about my interest.

Do you do this? I suspect if you love to read and are curious about the world, you do. Several years ago, I bought several of Barbara Tuchman‘s books, including A Distant Mirror, her history of 14th century Europe. Part of the book covered the lead-up and emergence of the Black (bubonic and pneumonic) Plague, including how mild weather during the 13th century lead to a population explosion in the decades before. I found the history and science of the plague interesting, which lead me to The Great Mortality by John Kelly (who just finished a book on the Irish Potato Famine,  going on my wish list right now). A search through my book software (I use both Collectorz and LibraryThing) shows eleven books about the plague, including Daniel Defoe‘s 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year, and The Black Death by Rosemary Horrox, which is a collection of reports, diaries and letters written by first person witnesses, translated mostly from Italian sources.

A plague doctor, 14th century

A plague doctor, 14th century

Much like looking up a word in the dictionary or an encyclopedia, your eye is drawn to other words, other topics, so I also began reading about diseases and plagues of other times. The Justinian plague, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, The Coming Plague and The Hot Zone, these are all books I’ve read since discovering my fascination with all things germy. Since I’m going on a trip to the Amazon in March and had a yellow fever vaccine, I picked two books, both referring to the American Plague, the story of the yellow fever epidemics that killed thousands in the US during the 19th century. Which of course led me to read Pox: An American History about the fight to eradicate smallpox in this country, and how even 100 years ago anti-vacationists used bad science, fear, and religion to fight against this effort.

John Snow, cholera map, cholera pump

John Snow’s Cholera Map. You can see a mock-up of the pump when you visit London, although it’s not at the exact location as the original.

A few years ago I read Ghost Map about the London cholera epidemic and John Snow’s pioneering epidemiology, which I reviewed on the James Randi Educational Foundation’s web blog SWIFT here. I found The Cutter Incident a great book about the race to develop a polio vaccine, and some consequences of the rush which still affect our health care policies today. Having two friends who contracted polio before the vaccine was developed, and listening to my mother talk about the fear, even panic, that enveloped the country every summer, I realize that we, in this decade and in the developed world, are indeed fortunate to be relatively free of scourges that have terrorized mankind for thousands of years.

So, what are your current ‘kicks’ in reading?

Categories: General Stuff!, History, James Randi Educational Foundatioin - JREF, Science

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8 replies

  1. I Loved Pox Americana. You might also like Flu by Kolata.

    Wish I had a current kick. I barely read now, just finally got bi-focal contacts which allows me to see much better than what I was struggling through the last 6 months. When you get out of the habit of reading, you really fall out of the habit. Sadly.

    I’m trying to get back into the swing of it and started by re-reading “Strange Seance” by Massimo P. It is a wonderful book, if I stay on the same “kick” I will probably move to Doyle’s book on Spiritualism, and Houdini’s book that exposes them. I have several other books about Houdini, the Fox Sisters, and spirit photography. You can see I also start with one book and end up with a shelf full.

  2. About a year ago I did some research on the Black Plague and ended up writing a couple of poems as a result. The subject was fascinating. So is your post. Thank you. Of the books you listed, I chose to purchase Defoe’s “1722 A Journal of the Plague Year” on your recommendation. I’ve no doubt I can trust him as a resource. I just downloaded it on my Kindle. Thank you for this information. I’ll be back to this post again and again, I’m sure.

    • Just so you will know, his book is a work of fiction, written years after the plague hit London. And of course, not everyone enjoys reading 17th century English literature. I’d love to see one of your poems, if you care to share. I’ve given talks on the plague at a couple of skeptics meetings (“everything you thought you knew…”) but I’m not creative like you.

      • I did read the reviews on Amazon before purchasing, and just read more, and it sounds ever more intriguing. I’ll give it a try.

        My poems are not scholarly, just for the general public as a reminder and/or a glimpse into history. Maybe I’ll try to find one and send it over.

        May I ask, what do you mean by a skeptics meeting?

      • Skepticism is a process, or maybe a philosophy, of using critical thinking to evaluate the world and claims about the world. (It sometimes is equated with cynicism, which it most definitely is NOT). A dry way of describing a skeptic is someone who withholds an opinion on something until the evidence is in. Most, we are people who are generally very interested in science, new discoveries, and rationality. We have a lot of fun – I go to some of the national conventions and we might here talks on anything from why there is no evidence for Big Foot or Loch Ness Monster other than really bad photos, or why some people think the moon landings were hoaxes, or how magicians are very good at detecting scams because of their professional training in how to fool people – presented by big name magicians. We try to educate people on scams about weird health claims (power bands are nothing but 5 cents worth of plastics) or why vaccination is very important, or expose ‘psychic healing’. I gave my Plague talk along the lines of ‘everything you thought you knew about the Black Death’.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. National conventions for skeptics. I had no idea.
    I’m about one-fifth of the way through the Defoe book and I am so glad to be reading it.


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