Plagues, Dead People, Freaky Diseases, and MORE! The Weirdo's Nonfiction Reading List

Emily's got her true crime fetish, I've got my weird diseases and dead people fetish.
Publish date:
September 6, 2012
books, reading, dead people, nonfiction, book lists

I'm not really outing myself here, but in case you didn't know, I'm really, really into books about plagues, dead people, and the practice of medicine. Visitors to my house are alternately fascinated and creeped out by the plagues, dead people, and medicine section of my library; and for all that they claim it's gross, whenever I step out, I invariably come back to someone with their nose deep into "The American Way of Death" or "Beyond the Body Farm." Emily's got her true crime fetish, I've got my weird diseases and dead people fetish.

Everyone's gotta have something, okay?

I have trouble compiling some of my favorites for this list, because really, there are so many to choose from! But, if you insist...


"The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases In A World Out of Balance" is basically my favorite nonfiction book ever written, hands down. Written by public health expert Laurie Garrett, it's an overview of pretty much every creepy, delicious, weird, terrifying disease that emerged in the 20th century. You've got your Ebola and HIV/AIDS, but also your Machupo, Marburg and hantavirus. She doesn't just offer up a smorgasbord of disease porn, though -- she also talks about how and why these diseases arose, and what we can do to address and hopefully prevent similar outbreaks in the future. If you're interested in more of Garrett's work on public health, "Betrayal of Trust" is a great follow-up, although you may also find it really depressing.

"And the Band Played On," a narrative of the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis in San Francisco, is pretty much a classic of the genre and a must-read. It's a brilliant piece of investigative reporting that will infuriate, sadden and energize you as it tracks the movement of the epidemic and discusses why government officials were so slow to act. It's also become a really key work within the genre of AIDS journalism and reporting, and has played a major role in how people talk about HIV/AIDS even now, 25 years after publication.

"Asleep" is an intriguing read about encephalitis lethargica, the world's "forgotten plague." While many people are familiar with the influenza pandemic of the teens (check out Gina Kolata's "Flu" if you want more on that), encephalitis lethargica gets almost no press, and it's an utterly fascinating and perplexing disease. As the influenza pandemic spread around the world, people started falling into deeply comatose states, unable to be roused, and stayed that way for weeks, months, even years. No one understood what was causing the condition, or how to stop it, and then it vanished just as suddenly as it appeared. "Asleep" is a creepy and fascinating read and if you're curious to know more, check out "Awakenings" by Oliver Sacks.

Human-influenced pandemics are also of interest to me; "And the Waters Turned to Blood" chronicles the events surrounding the blooming of Pfiesteria piscicida on the East Coast of the United States. It's a fascinating discussion of biosciences and politics with a healthy side of terrifying plague, complete with massive fish die-offs and more. Pretty much the perfect setup for someone's post-apocalyptic novel, is all I am saying.

Dead People

"Stiff" is the hot book in this genre right now, and I admit to having a deep fondness for Mary Roach's exploration of life after death, as it were, in the form of the fascinating research work done with human cadavers. Sometimes gross, sometimes horrifying, sometimes touching, but always fascinating, "Stiff" shows that it's possible for the dead to keep on giving. Cadavers have paved the way to tremendous developments in medicine, of course, but they're also behind major safety reforms, accident research, and more. If you haven't read "Stiff" yet, I'd recommend it.

For me, though, the classic is always "The American Way of Death," Jessica Mitford's astounding expose of the funeral industry in the United States. It may have been written in the 1960s, but an alarming portion of it holds true today -- especially in the updated edition. Mitford chronicled the abuses of funeral directors, talked about evolutions in funeral practices, and discussed the future of the industry in a book that spurred major reforms, including the FTC's Funeral Rule, mandating more disclosures to consumers. If you read "The American Way of Death" and decide you want nothing to do with the industrial funeral complex, which I did, check out "Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death," which talks about the funeral industry and provides guidelines on how to care for your own dead. (Did you know it's perfectly legal to take a body to a crematorium in your vehicle in California as long as you have the right permits?!)

"On Death and Dying" is another famous work in the genre and it's worth reading even if you think you know what it's about from pop culture. An intimate, sometimes dark, and complex look at death from the perspective of patients and those around them, it's a classic for a reason. Another interesting read is "Death and Bereavement Across Cultures," which chronicles mourning, funeral rites, and more in cultures from around the world, rather than focusing on a specifically Western perspective.

Forensics books are of course all the rage right now, but I find "Corpse" an outstanding example. It's detailed and it provides a fascinating glimpse into fields that don't get as much coverage due to ick factor or lack of exposure, like the role of forensic botanists in determining time of death. If you're going to read one book on forensics, make it this one, because it's head and shoulders, so to speak, above the rest of the crowd.

The Practice of Medicine

I have to give a shout out here to Dr. Michelle Au, whom I've been reading for years and years; her memoir "This Won't Hurt A Bit" is every bit as funny, moving, and insightful as her blog. Definitely pick it up if you haven't before; it's a great narrative of becoming a doctor, learning about the ins and outs of the medical world, and also becoming an adult at the same time.

"Body of Work" could go in the dead people or practice of medicine category, because it's about working with human cadavers in medical school, but I think it belongs here. It's not so much about the bodies themselves, but the students who learned from them, and Montross' own experiences in medical training. The text is making its way onto a lot of medical school curricula and I can see why; it's a clear, compassionate, and thought-provoking look at medicine, medical training, and the experience of working with a human body. No matter how prepared you think you are, when you start anatomy class, you enter a whole new world.

"Head Cases" is a fascinating look at brain injuries, an increasingly relevant field of medicine when more and more servicemembers are coming home with them. The brain is a bit of a black box; there's a lot about it that we don't understand, and there's a lot more that we need to figure out, like why brain injuries are so variable, how some people recover while others do not, and how exactly the brain remaps itself in the face of trauma. This book probes into the physics of brain injuries, the medical aspects, and the emotional ones, from the perspective of a care coordinator who specializes in brain injuries.

Speaking of brains, "Another Day in the Frontal Lobe" takes you into the wide world of neurosurgery with Doctor Katrina Firlik. Ever wanted to know what it's like to perform brain surgery? Or wanted to learn more about what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominated field with a whole lot of ego, testosterone, and aggression? "Another Day in the Frontal Lobe" has all that and more, including discussions of some cutting-edge technology designed to make brain surgery less invasive. It's a really cool read, and it doesn't hurt that Firlik's a gifted writer with a knack for vivid imagery and great pacing.

'fess up about the dead people on your bookshelves, readers!