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Summer Reading List: 9 Books That Will Help You Understand The Covid Crisis

2020 July 5
by Greg Satell

So summer is finally here, but not the way we thought it would be. Although most places have opened up, we still need to be careful and keep our distance. Some places, unfortunately, are having second waves and may have to shut down again. Life in the age of Covid is never normal or easy.

Yet we can still enjoy ourselves. Pools and beaches are opening, albeit with restrictions, and even a global pandemic can’t stop the warm weather. That’s what makes summer such a great time to catch up on reading, hours of lying in the sun with nothing better to do than spending time with a good book.

When I’m anxious about something, I usually try to learn more about it. Although the facts aren’t always pleasant, I find that once I understand something, I’m able to follow events in a more constructive way and that, at least, gives me a feeling of calm. That’s why this summer, I’m focusing my reading list on books that will help you understand the Covid crisis better. 


The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

A virus isn’t a living thing in the same way that bacteria and protozoa are. It is, essentially, a bit of genetic code wrapped in a protein shell, which invades our cells and hijacks our own genetic machinery to make more copies of itself. Most viruses are harmless and can even play a constructive part in evolution. Others, of course, are more nefarious.

Siddhartha Mukherjee is one of the premier science writers in the world today, having won the Pulitzer Prize for his earlier book, The Emperor of all Maladies. In The Gene: An Intimate History, he offers a surprisingly accessible account of the past, present and future of what we know about our genetic blueprint.

If you want to understand the pandemic on a basic level, you can do no better than this book!

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A Crack In Creation by Jennifer Doudna

The key to ending the crisis is to develop a vaccine. Historically, that has been a painfully slow process, which took years — and sometimes decades — to complete. There still isn’t an AIDS vaccine, for example. However, due to advances in synthetic biology and in particular a new technology called CRISPR, we can expect a Covid-19 vaccine to be developed in 12-18 months.

In A Crack In Creation, Jennifer Doudna, the discoverer of CRISPR, tells her personal story of how she came across an obscure mechanism in bacteria that revolutionized our ability to edit genetic material. It is a surprisingly personal book in which she shares her hopes and fears about the power of the technology she unleashed.

Generally speaking, I find the accounts from the scientists who make great discoveries much more fun to read than those written by journalists and this is a great example. If you want to follow all of the “sciency” talk about developing a cure for Covid, this book will definitely help.

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The Half-Life of Facts by Sam Arbesman

One of the most frustrating things about the Covid crisis is how the facts seem to change over time. At first scientists thought that it was primarily a respiratory disease, but now they believe that it works mostly by clotting our blood and gumming up our organs. There has been confusion about whether or not to wear masks and so on.

As chaos theorist Sam Arbesman explains in this fascinating book, that’s not unusual. Our understanding of the world evolves over time and, as it does, what is considered to be factual changes as well. In that sense, the seemingly moving target of Covid “truths” is a measure of how quickly we’re progressing, as early theories are discarded in the face of new data.

Read this book and your understanding of science will never be the same.

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The Beautiful Cure by Daniel M. Davis

It’s hard to believe but before around 1970, we really knew very little about the immune system and how our body fights diseases. It is, without a doubt, the most wonderfully complex system in our bodies. In fact, it isn’t one system but a number of different systems built on top of one another, all trying to identify and destroy threats to our bodies.

The author, Daniel M. Davis is a leading immunologist himself and writes gracefully about a subject he knows well, brings alive not only the science, but the scientists themselves, many of whom he knows personally. The beautiful cure will give you a new appreciation for the marvels of our biology.

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The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

One of the things that is so insidious about viruses like Covid is that they constantly mutate. By hijacking our genetic machinery to copy themselves, they are constantly making mistakes and changing their genetic code. Most of the time, these changes kill the virus, but sometimes it results in mutation that makes the virus even more deadly. That appears to have happened with Covid.

Richard Dawkins’ classic, The Selfish Gene, changed our conception of how life evolves. Rather than a dull analysis of genes and chromosomes, Dawkins asks us to think of evolution as a set of gene survival strategies, with us as mere vehicles. So as Covid keeps changing so that it can avoid detection by our immune system, our immune system keeps adapting so that we can better pass our genes along.

This is one of those books that will forever change how you think about the world around you.

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The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun

One of the most difficult aspects of the Covid crisis for many people is learning how to be productive working from home. There are some definite advantages, like not having to commute and spending more time with family, but for many people the number of distractions and lack of structure can be difficult. From a management perspective, leading a remote workforce requires developing new skills.

Although written seven years ago, Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants provides a fun and insightful account of his year working remotely for Far ahead of its time, it will give you great ideas about how to manage yourself and others in the era of Covid.

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The Doctor’s Plague by Sherwin Nuland

Long before the Covid crisis or even the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, there was childbed fever, which killed as many as a quarter of all women giving birth. As it turned out, it was the doctors themselves who were causing it, by delivering babies directly after operating on patients without washing up.

A young doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis identified the cause and brought infections down dramatically at Vienna General Hospital by implementing a strict regime of hand washing. However, due to a combination of resistance from the medical establishment and Semmelweis’s own stubbornness, he was ostracized and later died in disrepute.

One of the bright spots of the Covid crisis is that we’re accelerating science in unprecedented ways and will undoubtedly discover important cures. Hopefully, we’ve learned something since Semmelweis’s time.

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The Lives Of A Cell by Lewis Thomas

This one is an absolute classic. Lewis Thomas was a towering figure in medicine for decades. He was Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine, and President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute and wrote a regular column for the New England Journal of Medicine. Lives of a Cell, which won a National Book Award, is a collection of those columns.

Although published nearly half a century ago, the short essays in this book will permanently alter your perspective. For example in the title essay, he asks us to look at viruses like the one that causes Covid-19 as more than just “single-minded agents of disease and death,” but as a “mechanism for keeping new mutant DNA in the widest circulation among us.”

Each essay is only a few pages long, so you can read it in small bites but be inspired nonetheless!

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The Plague by Albert Camus

More than 70 years after it was published Camus’ The Plague, for which he won the Nobel Prize, is hauntingly relevant. On the surface, it is a simple story of an epidemic in the town of Oran, which goes under strict quarantine. However, on a more visceral level, it is about human struggle and how we all adapt to it in different ways.

In Camus’ view, the pestilence is always under the surface, lying dormant but waiting to rise up again. When it does it brings out heroism in some, greed and selfishness in others. In the end, he concludes, “to simply say what we learn in the midst of plagues : there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Let’s hope he was right.

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So that’s my list for this summer. If you would like to add a suggestion of your own, please feel free to do that in the comments section.

– Greg

Image: Pixabay


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