One of the more regular questions I’m getting this spring is “What are you reading?” After my response, it becomes clear that the questioner is not looking for entertainment, but rather seeks insight useful for dealing with the novel coronavirus crisis. Initially, I recoil from responding since the crisis is changing so rapidly that any list of readings relevant to conditions today will likely be overwhelmed by new conditions next week. But on reflection, I think four kinds of books can help one make meaning of the current crisis:
- History of an earlier pandemic. The predominant earlier global pandemic to which pundits refer is the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919. Governments engaged in no quarantines. Soldiers demobilized from WWI brought the virus back to their home countries. The U.S. Center for Disease Control estimates that about 500 million people became infected worldwide, causing at least 50 million deaths. John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History is an excellent narrative of this crisis.
- History of leaders in the depths of a global crisis. The pressures on leaders in a crisis are immense. How does the stress of a crisis manifest itself? How might leaders handle the stress? Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the UK during the blitz of 1940-1941 is a very interesting case history. I heartily recommend Erik Larsen’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.
- History of the Great Depression. Another regular question is “Are we headed into another Great Depression?” Based on what we know today, I would say no. The US government has responded far more vigorously at the outset of the crisis than it did in 1929-1933. All the same, reading a good history of the Depression can lend perspective on the current conditions. I highly recommend David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear. It is the best-in-class history of the Depression.
- Some self-help reading. Friends and co-workers find the adjustment to social isolation to be jarring. Old habits based on a workplace out of the home, on life-long routines, and on in-person engagement were so comfortable and enjoyable. The isolation has left some friends adrift. I encourage them to read Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. The most successful artists are self-motivated and disciplined. Curry’s profiles yield great examples to inspire any socially-isolated worker.
I wish you health and well-being!