Now Reading: Pandemic Edition

Just updated my Now Reading page. I have suspended my regular reading queue for the most part (except for continuing to work through Terry Pratchett) and made a special section for Pandemic reading. Here’s a quick rundown on what I’ve been reading/plan to read, and why.


I’ve picked, or am looking for, books to read on the following broad topics (many hit more than one, so there’s fewer books on the list than themes here). I picked the focused themes, and then picked the actual books mostly based on twitter recommendations:

  1. The Spanish Flu
  2. The Black Death, and 14th century culture
  3. World War I and II wartime economies
  4. Economy in 1920s/30s
  5. Marshall Plan
  6. Stuff about 1940s/50s innovation era
  7. “Our place in the universe” type philosophy reads
  8. Roaring Twenties cultural life (no good finds yet)
  9. Creative/arts life in the late 40s/50s.
  10. Science of viruses, vaccines, etc. (no good finds yet)
  11. Post-SARS public health models in Asia (no good finds yet)
  12. Relevant future technologies stuff (no good finds yet)

In many ways, this is a pretty seamless continuation of a reading vector I’ve been in for several years anyway — Dark Age stuff. It’s just gotten more focused, with sharper motivating questions driving the reading.

The Why

In brief, I think we’re headed, in the Post-Corona era, into a period of deep civilizational reconstruction, at every level from rebuilding global infrastructure with a great deal of state involvement, to rescuing the economy, to rebooting the cultural imagination in a new way, to sparking a new kind of tech boom with a different focus.

The direct-precedent topics of SARS, the Spanish Flu, and the Black Death are relevant in obvious ways. The WW1, interwar, WW2, and post-war eras are relevant from a radical reconstruction/reboot/recovery point of view. But perhaps the philosophy/place in the universe and 20s-50s culture books are the most important for me personally, because they get at the softer, squishier aspects of the challenges we are headed into, which are the ones that intrigue me the most .

I’m live-tweeting these books as I read. Here is a meta-thread of my live reads. I’ve finished 2 books and am into the third. The first two might seem kinda like weird picks, but here’s why I think they’re relevant.


In February, I started reading Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding, about the rise of science fiction in 1930s-50s, orchestrated by John. W. Campbell, editor of Astounding magazine and executed by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard. Here’s the live-read thread.

It is a fascinating story of the expansion of the creative imagination in the shadow of WW2 and the growing threat of nuclear weapons. I started reading it partly because Campbell has always fascinated me, and the story seemed relevant to making sense of my own Act 2 creative challenges for the next couple of decades as I’ve framed them. But as news of Covid19 started swamping the media, it became a much more urgent/poignant read because as I read, it struck me with increasing force that preserving and growing the imagination through dark times is an important, and under-rated cultural imperative. So about 1/3 of the way through, my reading headspace shifted from personal interest to pandemic interest.

I can’t quite put my finger on how, but something like the Campbellian revolution in science fiction will be needed to reboot the imagination post-Corona. Highly recommended.

The Dysons

In March, I read Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe, about the physicist Freeman Dyson and his son, canoe-builder and technology historian George Dyson. Ross Andersen recommended the book when Freeman Dyson died on February 28th, and for some reason, it struck me as exactly the right read for the mood that was already developing by then, and had already taken at least my mind over. Here’s the live-read thread.

It is an unclassifiably weird book about an uneasy father-son evil-twins type relationship. Freeman was a classic 1950s style genius technology visionary who conceived and designed nuclear powered rockets, and dreamed of starships flying to Alpha Centauri. He spent his life in the heart of the military-industrial complex in Europe and the US, working on everything from efficient WW2 bombing to the Manhattan Project, to nuclear rocketry.

George on the other hand, was a stubborn drop-out outdoorsman frontier guy and counter-cultural intellectual. I met him at a conference, and previously read his Turing’s Cathedral (about the pioneering IAS Machine, the ancestor of all modern computers), and assumed he was a regular sort of historian. Boy was I mistaken. George is primarily known for building Aleut canoes and living off the grid in the British Columbia and Alaska wilderness in the 70s.

The book is quite amazing and somehow weirdly perfect as a pandemic read. Again, highly recommended.

Reading Forecast

Now I am into more directly relevant pandemic-salient books. I imagine I might switch the queue around, or insert a lighter read if things get too bleak.

As I said, I am live-tweeting them as I read as I said. I might do very short reviews here, but probably not.

I don’t like doing book club type things, but you’re welcome to read along and post comments here, or tag me if you tweet about it. Also looking for recommendations for the themes I haven’t yet found good reads for.

Here are the links for the Now Reading page and the twitter meta-thread again.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I think we’re headed, in the Post-Corona era, into a period of deep civilizational reconstruction, at every level from rebuilding global infrastructure with a great deal of state involvement

    Oh, “involved” – will the master come back?

    In the post heroic, liberal world, were we come from, the enterprise is free and the state is some sort of convoluted rule guided expert system, which is supposed to constrain the free actors in order to compute the common wealth. You can plant a flower bed but not without consulting the local administration, green NGOs, which check that the seeds you use are not GMO, various ethics commissions, snow flakes whose hay fever might be triggered and so on. The best position you can have in such a political economy is that of a tinkerer / researcher in a big company or some node of it like Deep Mind, where other people shield you from the society / the state. Now if one asks for a more active role of the state, not just a defensive one or as the distribution channel of tax money, but one in which it is “involved” what does it mean for the design of the political economy?

  2. I wonder if you’d find Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark useful. It’s a cultural history of the 30s, which doesn’t exactly match the list (expressing interest in cultural aspects of the 20s, 40s and 50s…) but might be close enough.

    Haven’t read it, but Dickstein has been on my radar since I read and enjoyed his Gates of Eden, an interesting hybrid cultural critical/experiential look at the 60s.

    For slices of life, Terry Teachout has a few biographies covering cultural figures from that general era – critic HL Mencken, choreographer George Balanchine, musicians Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. (His bio of Duke is in my queue.)

  3. Eric in Kansas says

    I had a look at your queue & saw Primo Levi’s ‘Periodic Table’ there.
    I read it many years ago, and still remember the gut punch.
    Very highly recommend it.

  4. I’d be interested in how you’d assess this pandemic from the perspective of Joseph Tainter’s book “The Collapse of Complex Societies”, which you’ve read already.

  5. Aaron Gray says

    for what its worth, tony judt’s postwar is an excellent assessment of the postwar world, theoretically rigorous but eminently readable. there’s no better history of the reconstruction era. touches the reconstruction of economic and political spheres (a lot on the marshall plan, obviously), the innovation era, art and academic life, and a lot more. its a tome. its primarily focused on Europe and the advent of the EU, but sheds a lot of insight into the origins of globalization.

  6. Recommend John Berger’s ‘To the Wedding’. It is his imaginative response to AIDS.

  7. Question: how do you read when you have to deep dive in a such close to current events topic? Do you read whole books or do you skip trough it and read only the chapters you think i will need to think/write/do something?

  8. Aoife Kirk says

    Just finishing “The Great Influenza” and lots of parallels how science / medicine linking with political and economic climate, and the changes that have occurred since. Came across your blogpost few years ago on elephants and eagles, also very apt for current timing!