A Pandemic Literary Review

Kara McShane shares her top selections for unconventional “pandemic literature.”

If you’ve ventured to hoping to find Albert Camus’s The Plague or Stephen King’s The Stand, chances are you’ll be waiting.

“Literature is a perfect antidote for stay-at-home orders and social distancing, because it invites us to new worlds and introduces us to characters whose experiences may echo our own,” says Kara McShane, assistant professor of English who has a particular passion for medieval literature. “Literature has provided people with a way to respond to the world for a long time and storytelling seems hard-wired into human DNA.”

As the demand for “pandemic literature” grows, McShane recommends a few less conventional choices that are unlikely to end up on a waitlist—but whose prose and plot will linger. Here are her top five selections and why they strike McShane as particularly relevant:

1. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
“If I could only choose one, I’d say this is the classic work in response to a pandemic. It includes one of the most detailed literary descriptions of the Black Death, that famous medieval pandemic, in its opening. The frame essentially sets up a quarantine pod, as a group of young people leave the city and begin to tell stories to pass their time in isolation. It’s great for reading in small bursts.”

2. Pearl
“April is National Poetry Month, so what better time to read one of the most powerful meditations on loss ever written? The anonymous fourteenth century poem deals with a father’s grief at the death of his young daughter (likely, scholars suggest, due to the Black Death). The original Middle English is some of the most beautiful—and intricate—poetry written in that language. But if you don’t want to tackle the original, Simon Armitage’s translation captures its spirit and captivates the reader.”

3. “Quarantine” by Eavan Boland
“If you need something shorter than Pearl, “Quarantine” is a quick but powerful read, a brief narrative poem focused on love, illness and death during the Great Famine in Ireland. It’s hauntingly simple, the story of a couple trying to flee a workhouse.”

4. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
“If genre fiction is your thing, you can’t miss with Parable of the Sower. Written in the 1990s, it’s set in the 2020s and it’s eerily timely, dealing with the aftermath of income inequality and environmental destruction. It’s also the first in a trilogy, so it should keep you busy while staying at home.”

5. Angels in America by Tony Kushner
“And in my view, absolutely no list of literature inspired by times of crisis would be complete without this two-part play, which responds poignantly to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Its brilliance was recognized immediately: the first part won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993, the year of the play’s Broadway opening. And its ending—wishing its reader/viewer “more life” for the Great Work that will continue—is both haunting and hopeful, speaking to our own uncertain time.”

A quick note: Timely projects inspired by McShane’s first pick, The Decameron, can be found online. Check out the Center for Medieval Studies at the University of Minnesota’s “Decameron in the time of Coronavirus,” and stay tuned for more as alumna Katie Pierpont ’13 will be doing an upcoming episode. – By Tom Yencho