In the long centuries during which the plague ravaged Europe, the quarantined, if they were lucky enough to have books, read them. If not, and if they were well enough, they told stories. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, from the fourteenth century, seven women and three men take turns telling stories for ten days while hiding from the Black Death—that “last Pestilentiall mortality universally hurtfull to all that beheld it”—a plague so infamous that Boccaccio begged his readers not to put down his book as too hideous to hold: “I desire it may not be so dreadfull to you, to hinder your further proceeding in reading.”
The literature of contagion is vile. A plague is like a lobotomy. It cuts away the higher realms, the loftiest capacities of humanity, and leaves only the animal. “Farewell to the giant powers of man,” Mary Shelley wrote in “The Last Man,” in 1826, after a disease has ravaged the world. “Farewell to the arts,—to eloquence.” Every story of epidemic is a story of illiteracy, language made powerless, man made brute.
But, then, the existence of books, no matter how grim the tale, is itself a sign, evidence that humanity endures, in the very contagion of reading. Reading may be an infection, the mind of the writer seeping, unstoppable, into the mind of the reader. And yet it is also—in its bidden intimacy, an intimacy in all other ways banned in times of plague—an antidote, proven, unfailing, and exquisite.
Jill Lepore, “Don’t Come Any Closer”, The New Yorker (30 March 2020), 23.