The Spanish flu, which ravaged the world from 1918-1920, was a horrifying illness that killed at least 50 million people, likely tens of millions more. Yet the literature is lacking. It’s easy to find hundreds of great books on WWII, for instance, which took the lives of about 85 million people. But a quick search for titles on the Spanish flu yields just a handful of results. (I’m guessing that our current pandemic will change that.) I tried reading a few of them and had a clear favorite.
I also had the immense pleasure of asking journalist, radio host, and author Celeste Headlee about some of her favorite books.
Let’s get to it.
Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney (2017, 295 pages)
In the last few months I’ve tried out a few different books on the 1918-1920 pandemic; reaching back for a better understanding of the past tends to afford some measure of comfort about what’s happening in the present.
The first one I tried was John Barry’s The Great Influenza, which has gotten the lion’s share of attention this year. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get more than a few chapters in before I was lost in the science. I didn’t love his approach or structuring either.
Then I gave The Pandemic Century a shot, but again couldn’t wade through the epidemiology before tossing it aside.
I finally, and thankfully, landed on Laura Spinney’s incredibly readable and accessible account of not only the pandemic, but also its far-reaching after-effects.
Her global perspective was eye opening and the inevitable parallels to today — found on nearly every single page — were disturbing, to say the least. While there is some hope to be found within Pale Rider’s pages, the unifying reality of pandemics is their long-term nature. It may sound bleak, but knowing that this strange time period won’t magically end come fall or winter may help you think more about the long run, which can counterintuitively alleviate some of the anxiety you’re feeling about the unknowability of things.
When the dust clears from this novel virus, our world will be different, just as it was 100 years ago after that flu ran its course. Rather than yearn for the “before,” we’d do well to recognize the reality of change. I understand the pessimism of that, but at the same time, humans — and our relationships with each other — are adaptable. We always find a way to turn lemons into lemonade. We’ll miss some things, to be sure, but some aspects of life will be better, too; I don’t yet know what, but I am sure of it. (Quick update: Taylor Swift’s new album is one of those things.)
We’re all in this together. The Spanish flu didn’t bring the world to an end and neither will COVID-19.
A Few Bookish Questions With Celeste Headlee
As I first mentioned a couple months back, I initially encountered Celeste’s work in the marvelous podcast MEN. Then I heard her on NPR’s 1A, then I read her book Do Nothing (my review here), then we talked to her on the AoM podcast . . . so, it was a real honor to be able ask her a few questions about books. Enjoy.
1. Your work is pretty wide-ranging — from books on conversations and productivity (sort of), to journalism on sexism, racism, history, and politics. Are there any books that have most influenced your broad scope of work, or how you approach your work and writing?
I have read a lot of books by other journalists — Personal History and Bad Blood and The Journalist and the Murderer and The Race Beat and even Nellie Bly's book, when I was a rookie journo. Reporters are required to cover a vast range of topics and speak to experts in an incredible number of fields. Perhaps the most important trait in a successful journalist is curiosity. So, my curiosity leads me in a lot of surprising places where I simply can't resist pulling on the strings and continuing to pull until I reach an end.
2. You gave Studs Terkel's Race a powerful recommendation on Twitter, calling it "one of the most essential books on race." But it's not a title I've seen on any of the numerous lists of books on race that have gone around the internet. Any idea why that is? What do you think Terkel's legacy is? He's not a guy who's known as well today as he was a few decades ago.
It's really unfortunate that Studs is not given the respect he deserves. He was such an incredible interviewer, he was able to coax people into pouring their hearts out to him, and tell him things that they may be reluctant to say publicly. His archives of oral histories are an absolute treasure trove. I believe very strongly that authentic conversation is the key to so many of our intractable problems, including race, and as Ralph Nichols said, "The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them." Stud’s book on race brings us the authentic voices of all kinds of different people, some famous and some not, struggling to understand why race is such an issue and what might be done about it. There are offensive statements in the book, for sure, but it's a rare, intimate glimpse inside the minds of our neighbors and friends. It should be on all book lists for the student of racism in America.
3. Has your reading changed in 2020 — either in your reading habits or the actual content? It's been a tough year; have you turned to any go-to comfort reads/authors/genres?
Since I became a professional journalist, my recreational reading habits have been almost entirely non-fiction. I like to read mysteries because, unlike in my regular work, all of the questions get answered in the end and the villain gets it in the teeth. It's true escapism for me. Oddly, my reading habits have become more serious during the pandemic, perhaps because I'm searching for answers to the multitude of questions in my head, I'm reading a lot about race and about epidemics and about science.
4. Are there books you find yourself gifting, recommending, or generally just talking/thinking about a lot?
One of the books I recommend all the time is Loneliness by John Cacioppo, the man who created the field of social neuroscience. It's an incredibly enlightening look at our current state of isolation, how dangerous it is, and how simple it can be to treat. The other one is Yes, Please, Amy Poehler's memoir. I absolutely love that book, and I generally hate memoirs. Amy is so smart and delightful. I've read her memoir twice and loved it both times.
5. What are you reading and enjoying now? What's next on your list?
I just finished The Swallows, by Lisa Lutz. I love the Spellman series and so picked this one up. It's much more serious in subject, but written with a wry tone. I enjoyed it. I also finished Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston. What an incredible book that is. I think the only other book of hers that I've read before is Their Eyes Were Watching God and now I want to read everything she's written. I also read Children of Blood and Bone. That's a fantasy novel, and I read it in one day. It was so good.
I’ve heard only good things about Children of Blood and Bone. I’ll have to check it out soon. Anyways, that’s all for me this week. Thanks for the time and inbox space, and do let me know what you’re reading. I love hearing.