Book Review: Pale Rider The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney

Pale Rider The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney

I’m one of those people that likes to be informed—on everything really or as much as I can fit into my small mediocre brain and limited attention span. The positives of having a desktop, 27-inch plus monitor and high-speed internet in what began for photography/art now are numerous including running Tweetdeck with a number of lists of really bright people that I follow in real-time; these lists include people all over the world—smart, reliable, critical thinkers. At the beginning of January 2020, I was unnerved at the number of epidemiologists becoming alarmed at what was happening in Wuhan. The detailed description of the symptoms and treatments were terrifying; a double-lung transplant among those. I mentioned this to someone at the library where I worked part-time—they blew me off laughing at me. I emphasized that I was a skeptic and wasn’t one to follow conspiracists nor hyperbolize something so serious—I urged caution. This person was a covert anti-vaxxer. A month later they took the information more seriously as they had an asthmatic son to protect; a month after that, we were days away from a countrywide lockdown. I grabbed the first book from the library I could available to me on the subject: Pandemic 1918 by Catherine Arnold. It was an informative read but not nearly as in-depth as Pale Rider. I would recommend the former as a prelude to the latter.

Spinney’s prose is as encompassing as her research. She doesn’t focus merely on the West and the science, but worldwide with an eye towards writers and artists adding their own words to her manuscript giving it the much-needed sociopolitical and anthropological clout required for nonfictional collection of anecdotes such as these. This also adds an artistic flair to her own words and the authenticity of such real-world experience. Seriously, there is no way an author or researcher could honestly portray COVID-19 without referencing the artists, writers, performers, and their creations that have kept us mostly sane—give or take—during this whack time. She also cites history—many thousands of years of it (evidently we go through this thing time and time again because we humans fail to learn the consequences of our actions). She mentions how global diseases affected global climate. She discusses the spiritual effects of the virus on people and their perversion of such as punishments of a god or the gods. She indicates and acknowledges how “eugenics informed immigration and public health policies” at the time. She specifies how the virus affected troops and the war. She references many honored creatives and personalities such as Munch, Pound, Gonne, Yeats, Kafka, Azevedo, etc., and how they fared during the virus. She explained in detail how the virus looked, felt, and the long-term effects generational and otherwise of those who were fortunate enough to survive. And on and on. If you have the time and inclination, I would not pass this book up as it is an important part of human history and you’ll relate as many of the behaviors during that time seem unsurprisingly familiar.

I have one more 1918 flu book on my Kindle: The Great Influenza by John Berry that I plan to get to eventually. If you can recommend others, drop me a line/comment.

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