Contemporary History Review: The Plague Year

November 21, 2021 Uncategorized 4 ★★★★½

Contemporary History Review: The Plague YearTitle: The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid
Author: Lawrence Wright
Source: Library
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads
Rating:four-half-stars

Summary: It took me a bit to get into the digressions in this book, but in the end, I really appreciated the many differing perspectives on the year of 2019.

This is a history primarily focused on COVID, but it spans most of the major events of 2019, ending around the Jan 6 insurrection in 2020. The murder of George Floyd, the subsequent uprisings, and the election all feature heavily. It also includes a lot of personal experiences, both from the author’s own life and from people he interviews who had particularly representative or moving stories.

I struggled to get into this. It isn’t just a neat, linear narrative. The author sometimes includes info on the history of vaccines or prior pandemics. He includes personal anecdotes. Most chapters start with an anecdote, which makes for a great hook, but initially felt a bit disjointed to me. I was bothered by the fact that this wasn’t just a snappy, focused, chronological narrative (more like Michael Lewis’s The Premonition). That’s unusual for me. I typically like books with digressions, that blend personal stories and history into their narrative. I think the issue here for me was the topic. With everything that’s happened and is happening with COVID, I think I’m particularly predisposed to want narrative certainty. Just tell me about what’s happened in such a way that it all makes sense, please!

As I got more into this book, it did get more chronological. Stories that started out as one-off anecdotes were expanded on. I came to really appreciate the many different perspectives the author shared. He included insider info on decision making at the federal level that I was previously unaware of. He covered health officials and individuals who had incredible stories that hadn’t featured in the (minimal) prior reading that I’ve done. The writing was clear and dynamic. It’s a gripping story and the author made the most of that without becoming overly dramatic. Despite being about a topic that I evidently still find somewhat stressful, I’m glad I picked this up. It was an enjoyable read and I did learn a lot that helped contextualize the year that was 2019.

4 Responses to “Contemporary History Review: The Plague Year”

  1. Helen Murdoch

    I wonder if we are still too “in” this pandemic to be able to write and read nonfiction books about it. We don’t yet know where we’re going or how/if it will all end up.

    • DoingDewey

      I felt like this book had a decent amount of perspective and didn’t try to come right up to the present day. It felt complete and well researched. So it might be possible to write books about it. But I think I’m at least still too in it to evaluate books about in the same way I evaluate other books!

  2. Rennie

    Oh yay, I’m so glad that this one eventually won you over!! I think I was a bit confused by it at the beginning too because as you described, there’s a lot going on and it’s tough to tell where it’s going to go with so much immediately thrown out there. I felt similarly about The Premonition though, and I think I had a different idea of where it was going and so was surprised where it ended up. But like that one, I enjoyed all of the different perspectives here too.

    And I found it helpful and reassuring actually, to see what others were doing and experiencing during this time. The last couple of years have made it easy to feel very isolated in our own small worlds I think, and getting all these perspectives has eased that feeling of isolation for me somewhat. I think you put it really well that it helped to contextualize a lot about this period.

    Great review, and glad you enjoyed his writing too!
    Rennie recently posted…Nonfiction November Week 4: Stranger Than FictionMy Profile

    • DoingDewey

      Thanks Rennie! I’m really glad you recommended this one, because I did end up enjoying it. It is possible part of the way I felt at the beginning wasn’t just my response to Covid, but actually reflected that there were a lot of things happening that became more clear as the book went on. It was kind of nice to hear about how other people experienced that year 🙂

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