Review: Barry’s The Great Influenza

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

John Barry

Started this book right in the heart of it. Mid-April, New York City. Only leaving the apartment late at night to run around an empty Prospect Park.

This is an incredible work, both a detail history of the greatest modern pandemic before covid and a book about the development of modern medicine in America.

I, like most people, in early 2020 knew next to nothing about the 1918 pandemic. I didn’t know that it started (most likely) in America, and not Spain. I didn’t know that they didn’t even know it was the flu for an incredibly long time. I didn’t know that (like today) the response was badly bungled by the federal government, and I didn’t know (like today) that the death toll was disproportionately among the poor.  Reading it was in some ways like reading our own future, though I hope our outcome is better. They never really got control of the flu then, it kind of just petered out on it’s own after leaving millions dead.

Perhaps the thing about this book and the 1918 pandemic that struck me hardest was the 1918 produced no great works of art. No profound novels, no mournful operas, no harrowing paintings. In our cultural landscape, it was all but forgotten, living on only in punk rock record covers of folks in masks. I wonder, will our pandemic turn out the same?

Highly recommended.  

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