Publishing Season, Flu Season

Scott McLemee explores books pertinent to COVID-19 that are forthcoming this fall.

June 26, 2020
 
 
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Several fall university press catalogs open with messages from the editors or directors composed at the height of the coronavirus lockdown this spring. They sound beleaguered but determined. Some books have been delayed, but over all not that many. That more than 40 catalogs are available is remarkable. Putting one together is, by most accounts, a challenge even when those responsible can meet in person. (As someone said, the perfect title for a memoir of 2020 would have to be “In the Zoom Where It Happens.”)

Through foresight or synchronicity, a number of pandemic-applicable titles appear in the new catalogs. Frank M. Snowden’s Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (Yale University Press) appeared in hardback last fall. No paperback or ebook edition was in the press’s spring catalog, but both varieties became available in early May. Described as a “multidisciplinary and comparative investigation of the medical and social history of the major epidemics,” the book, based on a course the author teaches at Yale University, covers “themes such as the evolution of medical therapy, plague literature, poverty, the environment, and mass hysteria.” (All quoted material here is taken from the press’s catalogs unless otherwise indicated.) Its new edition carries a preface about COVID-19. The listing on the publisher’s website contains the enviable words “As seen on 60 Minutes.”

The search for viral origins described by Lyle Fearnley’s Virulent Zones: Animal Disease and Global Health at China’s Pandemic Epicenter (Duke University Press, October) sounds complex -- and much too open-ended for comfort. The author accompanies “virologists and veterinarians as they track lethal viruses” that “emerge out of intensively farmed landscapes and human-animal interactions” in southern China. The research is “less a linear process of discovery than a constant displacement toward new questions about cause and context.” A characterization the book as documenting “the global plans to stop the next influenza pandemic at its source” is perhaps inadvertently anxiety inducing, given the timing. Chances are it was written a while back, before the current pandemic began to spread. But its reference to the future could also be taken -- shudder to think -- as referring to unpredictable outbreaks yet to come.

Joshua Gans’s The Pandemic Information Gap: The Brutal Economics of COVID-19 (MIT Press, November) will be a sort of reincarnation of the author’s Economics in the Age of COVID-19, published in April as an ebook in the MIT Press First Reads series. Gans sees a lack of data about the spread of the coronavirus as a major problem: “When we don't know who is infected, we have to act as if everyone is infected. If we actively manage the information problem -- if we know who is infected and with whom they had contact -- we can suppress the virus or buy time for vaccine development.” (This is bound to be a controversial argument, given its neglect of a third option: ignore the facts and complain that testing data amounts to a partisan conspiracy.) Adequate information might enable the crafting of public policy to “insulate businesses from failure and workers from job loss” and make it possible to consider “methods for handling potential vaccine shortages.” Please let that be a problem soon.

Other forthcoming titles suggest their own alternatives to the tried-and-failed approach of denial and winging it. Jeremy Stapleton’s How to Use Exploratory Scenario Planning (XSP): Navigating an Uncertain Future (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, September) is offered as a manual to “help communities prepare for uncertainties posed by pandemics, climate change, automation and other unprecedented 21st-century challenges.” The planning approach it advocates is said to be “effective at the local, regional, or organizational level” as a means by which “stakeholders envision and develop various potential futures (i.e., scenarios) and consider how to measure and prepare for each rather than working toward a single shared vision for the future.”

Two other titles look to the natural world itself for approaches. In What Would Nature Do? A Guide for Our Uncertain Times (Columbia University Press, December), Ruth DeFries considers “how a handful of fundamental strategies -- investments in diversity, redundancy over efficiency, self-correcting feedbacks and decisions based on bottom-up knowledge -- enable life to persist through unpredictable, sudden shocks.” For example, the intricate network of veins” in a leaf has implications for how supply chains operate, while “stock-market-saving ‘circuit breakers’ patterned on planetary cycles reveal the power of these approaches for modern times.” Anticipating a future of “raging fires, ravaging storms, political upheavals, financial collapse and deadly pandemics” means learning from the very systems now imperiled.

Jamie Lorimer’s The Probiotic Planet: Using Life to Manage Life (University of Minnesota Press, November) looks to the biological realm -- not for models but for agents of change capable of undoing “the loss of ecological abundance, diversity, and functionality” under the human impact on climate and the ecosystem. The term “probiotic,” while most familiar in the context of yogurt commercials, refers to “any intervention in which life is used to manage life -- from the microscopic, like consuming fermented food to improve gut health, to macro approaches such as biological pest control and natural flood management.” Probiotic intervention can take place on the scale of an entire landscape or within a single organism, as with “the introduction of hookworms into human hosts to treat autoimmune disorders.” The implications of the probiotic approach for the COVID-19 pandemic will be discussed in the book’s preface.

Information and preparation have their limits -- beyond which the mind looks for something else: consolation. Light in Dark Times: The Human Search for Meaning (University of Toronto Press, October) written by Alisse Waterston and illustrated by Charlotte Hollands, is “a lament over the darkness of our times, an affirmation of the value of knowledge and introspection, and a consideration of truth, lies, and the dangers of the trivial.” Incorporating the insights of “writers, philosophers, activists, and anthropologists” about “the political catastrophes and moral disasters of the past and present,” it reveals “issues that beg to be studied, understood, confronted, and resisted.” For while this too will pass, something else will come along to keep the book relevant.

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