What We Are Reading:
The Plague And the Literary Cure
Jill Lepore writes about the literature of epidemics, looking back at great works about plagues by Daniel Defoe, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, Stephen King, Albert Camus, and Jose Saramago. What all plague literature shares is, first, the knowledge that the plague threatens the human world, that is “cuts away the higher realms, the loftiest capacities of humanity, and leaves only the animal.” And second, plague literature offers books themselves as the antidote to dehumanization: “the existence of books, no matter how grim the tale, is itself a sign, evidence that humanity endures, in the very contagion of reading.”
The literature of contagion is vile. A plague is like a lobotomy. It cuts away the higher realms, the loftiest capacities of humanity, and leaves only the animal. “Farewell to the giant powers of man,” Mary Shelley wrote in “The Last Man,” in 1826, after a disease has ravaged the world. “Farewell to the arts,—to eloquence.” Every story of epidemic is a story of illiteracy, language made powerless, man made brute.
But, then, the existence of books, no matter how grim the tale, is itself a sign, evidence that humanity endures, in the very contagion of reading. Reading may be an infection, the mind of the writer seeping, unstoppable, into the mind of the reader. And yet it is also—in its bidden intimacy, an intimacy in all other ways banned in times of plague—an antidote, proven, unfailing, and exquisite. …
“This is all we are good for, listening to someone reading us the story of a human mankind that existed before us.” And that, in the modern plague novel, is the final terror of every world-ending plague, the loss of knowledge, for which reading itself is the only cure.