This morning, I heard Laurie Garrett on National Public Radio (go here if you want to listen too). Until I read Natalie Angier, Laurie Garrett was my favorite Science writer.
If you're in the mood for a serious book on disease and its impact on culture, you can't do much better than Garrett's The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. I spent yesterday rereading parts of it, and even though it was published in 1994, I still found it extremely relevant. Each chapter could stand alone, if a reader was only interested in one disease of the many that Garrett covers. But read as a whole, the book gives important insight into how diseases spread, and the steps humans can take to fight microbes. Along the way, Garrett considers pre-2oth century pandemics, and she gives great history lessons.
If you want up-to-date information about the current flu strain, I heard two level-headed programs on NPR yesterday. Diane Rehm covered the subject in her first hour; one of her guests was Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH, who is always a great guest. On Talk of the Nation, this segment also gave information that avoided hysteria.
But maybe you're not in the mood for balance and calm. Maybe you want to scare yourself silly. Well, consider that 4 of the past 5 mass extinctions involved microbes--climate change speeds up the changes that make life more comfortable for microbes and more dangerous than their hosts. I picked up that nugget of information on a Science Friday episode; the scientists were talking about whether or not we should be worried about something like a meteor hitting the earth, and one scientist pointed out that climate change could be (and likely will be) far more catastrophic.
Maybe you're in the mood for fiction. I still consider Steven King's The Stand as one of the greatest novels about plague and the ensuing struggle between good and evil. I've read both the shorter and longer version, and I even like the miniseries that came out in the mid-90s. I know, I should give the prize to Camus, but I like Steven King better.
When King's book, On Writing, came out, I thought it was worth the price on many accounts, but I must confess that I especially loved the section on how he wrote The Stand. Until I read this book, I hadn't realized that so many people loved this work best, and how disheartening that might be to a writer who is still writing; King says, "There's something a little depressing about such a united opinion that you did your best work twenty years ago" (page 201).
Yesterday, I reread T. C. Boyle's short story, "After the Plague," in a collection of the same name. If you're in the mood for a humorous look at the end of the world, this one is for you. I think that Boyle's Friend of the Earth is one of the best apocalyptic novels that involve a global warming theme.
Yesterday, several people who know how much I love a juicy apocalyptic scenario asked me if I was worried about this current strain of swine flu. But I'm really not (except for that niggle of fear as I wonder how many people in late adolescence are amongst the dead--that's never a good sign). I'm impressed with how the world is working together, and I have been since the days of the avian flu of the late 90s (which has resurfaced in Egypt just recently) and the SARS crisis. I'm impressed with how swiftly the various governments are paying attention. If you look at the history of the world, you expect to see new flu outbreaks periodically. It's important to remember how rare it is that a new flu, fearsome as it has the potential to be, flames into a pandemic like the kind we saw in 1918.
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