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Bibliophiles: What to read in a pandemic

John M. Barry is the author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic.”
John M. Barry is the author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic.”Ken Goldstein

John M. Barry is the award-winning author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic,” which recounts the devastating and, now, timely story of the 1918 Spanish Flu and its profound aftermath. In addition to writing his many books, Barry has worked with various federal government entities on pandemic preparedness and is a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. He lives in New Orleans.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

BARRY: I don't have a lot of down time right now, in fact none. So my reading has dropped way off. But I started Mikhail Sholokhov's “And Quiet Flows the Don,” which has been in my bookshelf for years. He was very deserving of the Nobel Prize for it. If we think we have it tough now, try the chaos of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the civil war between the Whites and the Reds.

BOOKS: Are Russian novels a favorite of yours?


BARRY: There's a depth in the great Russian novels that seems pretty distinctive. I'm a great Faulkner fan too. I got into Faulkner as a kid through his pretty simple short stories, like "Honor," about a stunt-flying team. I confess I have never been able to get through “The Bear.” My wife thinks that's a real failing. She's probably right.

BOOKS: What would your normal reading routine be like?

BARRY: I read a lot of nonfiction, either history or environmental. This includes most recently Donald L. Miller’s book “Vicksburg,” one of the best Civil War books ever, and Oliver Morton’s “The Planet Remade,” about using geo-engineering to solve global warming. I would read more fiction if I had time.

BOOKS: What was your last best read before the pandemic?

BARRY: Don't ask me why, but I tend to re-read favorites. I consider that a weakness. Believe it or not, I started re-reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” I know Samuel Johnson said "No man ever wished it longer,” but I like it. As far as new books, that would be David Blight's biography on Frederick Douglass. It was first-rate, with very comprehensive scholarship.


BOOKS: Are there any lessons in Douglass’s life for now?

BARRY: Persistence, discipline, toughness.

BOOKS: What are some of your other top biographies?

BARRY: Richard Holmes on anyone. I love Samuel Johnson’s "An Account of the Life of Richard Savage," which seemed to me sympathetic yet ruthless in its pursuit of the truth. Then I read Holmes's “Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage” and discovered Johnson wasn't so ruthless at all. For pure writing, Robert Caro stands alone but he gets so passionate it distorts his writing and judgment. Even “Master of the Senate,” great as it is, shows some political naïveté.

BOOKS: Which books on the environment do you recommend a lot?

BARRY: You have to start with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert” is about water and the West that in parts reads like the movie “Chinatown.” Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire” book about smokejumpers isn't exactly an environmental book but it's terrific.

BOOKS: What books would give people some context for the current pandemic?

BARRY: Mike Osterholm's “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs,” David Quammen’s “Spillover,” and for fiction Camus’s “The Plague,” of course, and Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year.”


BOOKS: What books would you suggest for someone looking to be distracted from the current crisis?

BARRY: For humor, John Kennedy Toole’s classic “A Confederacy of Dunces” and one of my favorite Faulkner novels, “The Reivers,” though it is not generally considered among his best. It’s hilarious and easier to get into than much of Faulkner. For tragicomedy, Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” I can just imagine what Heller would do with today's situation. If you want to go deep, the forgotten Nobel laureate Elias Canetti's “Crowds and Power,” which is a very provocative consideration of group psychology and dictatorship.

BOOKS: What’s your typical guilty pleasure read?

BARRY: The sports section every day.

BOOKS: Is there enough to the sports section now to even be a guilty pleasure?

BARRY: Honestly, lately I haven’t read the newspaper at all. Or magazines. They pile up. I spend most of my time on two Google Groups trying to figure out a public health response to this disease.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane’’ and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.