The 4 Best Spanish Flu Books And Top 4 Reads on other Pandemics

Published by Slanted Bookshelf Team on

As COVID 19 dances across global headlines and news channels, the Spanish Flu is often mentioned as a comparison. Most people had not personally experienced an epidemic or pandemic until COVID 19. If you are interested in the history of Pandemics (and more specifically, the Spanish Flu) then this article is for you. From 1918-1920, the Spanish Flu infected one in three people on earth, and killed between 50-100 million people, or between 2.5 and 5 percent of the global population. Its devastating death toll was a result of many societal conditions, including a lack of a safety net for this sort of disaster. 

Some say that history repeats itself. At the very least, history serves as a reminder of what can happen to societies that are unprepared for a global pandemic. It is important to understand the past and educate yourself on the basics of viruses and influenza. That way, you can separate fact from fiction and make educated decisions to keep you and your family safe. 

The first four books on this list have to do specifically with the Spanish Flu. From our internet research, these are the best Spanish Flu Books. The last four relate to other pandemics. Many are bestsellers, and some are written by scientists with a strong understanding of epidemiology. I hope you can find a good read here – something to pass the time during your at-home quarantine.

COVID microsocopic image
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Top Books on The Spanish Flu

  1. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, By John M. Barry
  2. Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, By Laura Spinney
  3. Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It, By Gina Kolata
  4. Pandemic 1918, By Catharine Arnold
Spanish Flu Masks

Top Books on Other Pandemics

  1. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, By John Kelly
  2. Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, By Sonia Shah
  3. Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future, By Michael Oldstone MD
  4. Plagues and Peoples, By William McNeill

Rat Spanish Flu Books
Photo by DSD from Pexels

Read on for short descriptions of each book.


Books on The Spanish Flu


The Great Influenza Book Thumbnail

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
By John M. Barry

The book is a well researched masterpiece. Every year we are told to get vaccinated against the flu, but we may not understand why.  After reading this book you will have a deeper understanding of the forces at work and why vaccination is so important. Barry tells the history of the disease, the people involved, some personal portraits and the cultural responses to it. The key element which makes it enjoyable is the narrative about the state of medical science and its evolution at the start of the 20th century. At 550 pages long, this is a hefty book. However it is a must-read in the time of COVID 19.


Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World
By Laura Spinney
Laura Spinney is a British science journalist who adeptly wrote this book on the social history of the Spanish Flu without delving deeply into the scientific aspects of the pandemic. She takes the reader through the three waves of the killer Spanish Flu, each of which brought about social, political, and economic changes reminiscent of those of the Black Death nearly 600 years earlier. Her narrative jumps back and forth throughout time. Overall, this is an excellent read.


Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It
By Gina Kolata
This is a  great companion volume to John Barry’s Book (mentioned above). Gina Kolata provides a comprehensive examination of the Great Influenza including the details of why, when, and how it happened. Interestingly, she points out how in urban cities like Philadelphia, people died by the thousands, even though everybody wore face masks. Gina has a way of subtly creating suspense and curiosity that keeps you hooked. It is well worth the time to read this book. You will appreciate the scale of this pandemic and how it could all happen again. 


Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History
By Catharine Arnold
Pandemic 1918 is a well-researched compilation of eyewitness accounts from people who had the Spanish Flu and survived and others who lost loved ones to the flu. This read is unique in that you will feel the helplessness that victims and survivors must have felt. Arnold’s stories are a wake up call to the fact that a tiny virus can cause mass casualties in such a short amount of time. The book also contains accounts of the post-pandemic world. As the Spanish Flu lessened and people emerged from their homes, they found that the world had changed. For some, their employers were no longer in business. Other people’s jobs were curtailed as businesses struggled to become profitable again in a wounded economy.  I highly recommend this book. It will make personal this world changing event that seems to have been forgotten about. 


That is our definitive list of the best books on the Spanish Flu. Continue reading for other great reads on pandemics.

Books on Other Pandemics


The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time
By John Kelly
The Great Morality is a well written piece of history about The Black Death in Europe. Kelly does a good job of explaining the context within which the plague may have spread: poor medieval sanitary conditions, bad weather, low crop yield, starvation, and natural disasters that forced the migration of rats. He does this by taking case studies of various towns, in the order that they were infected. This is an excellent starting point for further exploration into Plague history. For such a grim topic, Kelly is able to insert some humor, which keeps the book from being overwhelming. 


Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond
By Sonia Shah
This is another well-researched book on a variety of plagues. Sonia Shah is unique in that she highlights societal factors that influenced plague outbreaks and spread. For example, she writes about how the East India Trading company was instrumental in the movement of the cholera virus into humans. She also touches on the corporate responsibility for outbreaks in New York attributable to the likes of JP Morgan. Another interesting history covered is the origin of the Irish 18th century famine. This book is very relevant given the recent outbreak, and is a must-read for a layperson.


Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future
By Michael Oldstone MD
Viruses, Plagues, and History is one of the more technical books in this list. Dr. Oldstone’s tone and content is similar to the way that Dr. Fauci talks about the Coronavirus. He covers biology, epidemiology, and medical history of viruses and plagues. Additionally, Oldstone provides an overview on how viruses and vaccines work. The first two chapters are a review of how the immune system works. If you are scientifically-minded, you will find this book difficult to put down.


Plagues and Peoples
By William McNeill
Plagues and Peoples focuses on the evolutionary history of humans and their illnesses. McNeill goes back to the earliest recorded plagues, and works his way forward. This book is exciting and educational. At times it can also get appropriately ghoulish (like when he describes Justinian’s Plague in the 6th century). After reading this, your whole view of history will likely be changed.


In Conclusion

The current pandemic has slowed everyone’s life down, causing us to shelter-in-place for months. We now wear face masks everywhere, watch our distance to other people, and look for symptoms of COVID 19. I hope that one or more books on this list will provide some relevant and captivating reading during your free time. It can help us all to learn about the plague that changed humanity and our lives forever.

Hand Sanitizer flu Top Books on Spanish Flu
Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels


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