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‘It’s The Same Fears’: A Missouri S&T Class Finds Solace In Pandemic Literature

Bubonic plague. Influenza. The Red Death. An infection of zombies. For Marie Lathers, reading fiction about these and other pandemics has proved to be a surprisingly comforting experience over the past year.

“Every text you read, even from back in the Middle Ages, you recognize a lot of things,” Lathers explained to St. Louis on the Air. “It’s the same fears, same angers, the hoarding, looting and despair. It’s comforting to realize we’re not just horrible, selfish people now. And you also have the other side — first-line workers who are giving of themselves to help other people. And then you have quacks giving out remedies that don’t actually work.”

From Giovanni Boccaccio to Albert Camus and from Katherine Anne Porter to Colson Whitehead, the literary catalogue of humans in times of pestilence is a long one. Lathers started digging deep into it last spring, near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, as the Maxwell C. Weiner Visiting Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla this school year, she’s leading 15 college students on a similar journey through a one-time course offering.

Meeting in person in a large classroom where students are able to safely spread out, the Missouri S&T class on pandemic literature has been talkative so far, Lathers said. The trickiest aspect may have been choosing the reading.

“There is just so much. It was really hard to narrow it down,” said Lathers, who is the Treuhaft Professor of French and World Literature at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “I wanted to include different types of plagues and pandemics and epidemics. I wanted authors from different countries, I wanted male and female, people of color.”

Lathers said her class just finished working through Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year,” published in 1722.

“This is kind of a cross between fiction and historical document, because he was basing it on the memoirs of his uncle, who lived through the London plague of 1665,” she said. “So in this book we can see a lot of history, a lot of accounting of how people reacted, what the city did, what religious leaders did. And I think [Defoe] has some hope, at least, because he keeps telling the reader, ‘I’m telling you this so in the future you’ll be more prepared for these types of things.’

“So there’s a little bit there that I think we can find comfort in. But I also think that just reading stories, and even though they’re stories that are connected to what we’re going through now, they’re still different. … It’s still a different story than the one we’re living now. And that in itself is, I think, comforting for people. That’s why people love stories, and that’s why people read.”

Contemporary books among Lathers’ top pandemic literature picks include Jose Saramago’s “Blindness” (1997), Stewart O’Nan’s “A Prayer for the Dying” (2000), Geraldine Brooks’ “Year of Wonders” (2002), Max Brooks’ “World War Z” (2006), Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” (2011) and C.C. Alma’s “The Little Dog in the Big Plague” (2017).

Listeners also wrote into St. Louis on the Air with a couple of their suggestions. Anna, a listener in Indiana, said she recently finished reading the sci-fi novel “Doomsday Book” (1992) by Connie Willis.

“The book featured time travel (done by ‘historians’ for research!) but I didn’t know going in that it was going to be about people dealing with plagues in two places, 700 years apart,” Anna wrote. “The ‘present day’ part of the book was set in 2054 London, so it was funny to see what someone in 1992 imagined as the future of healthcare.

“Just like us, people wore masks, ended up in quarantine, and ran low on toilet paper. In the 2054 plotline, an American visitor to London complains about quarantine and events being canceled, and says that in America, no one would take away your civil liberties like that … and a British man thinks to himself, ‘And that’s why 30 million Americans died in the last pandemic.’ Some things never change, I guess; we still have groups of Americans that believe masking and other public health safeguards are government overreach!”

Lathers also discussed the monthly virtual book club she leads in conjunction with the Rolla Public Library, which is also discussing pandemic-related literature.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Typically based at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Marie Lathers is currently serving as a visiting humanities professor at Missouri S&T in Rolla.
Marie Lathers /
Typically based at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Marie Lathers is currently serving as a visiting humanities professor at Missouri S&T in Rolla.

Evie Hemphill joined the St. Louis on the Air team in February 2018. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2005, she started her career as a reporter for the Westminster Window in Colorado. Several years later she went on to pursue graduate work in creative writing at the University of Wyoming and moved to St. Louis upon earning an MFA in the spring of 2010. She worked as writer and editor for Washington University Libraries until 2014 and then spent several more years in public relations for the University of Missouri–St. Louis before making the shift to St. Louis Public Radio.