It's not much of an exaggeration to say that no one on the planet would be surprised that COVID-19 keeps its grip on us as a hot topic. But even nearly a year into the pandemic going global, there's still a lack of good, comprehensive books on the disease written for readers who aren't medical professionals.
Nicholas Christakis is both physician and sociologist, putting him in a unique position to examine all the pandemic's layers. And he gives us the best broad survey so far: succeeding as a readable recounting of the pandemic's first year, a snapshot of a moment in history, and a portrayal of the multiple overlapping levels of things that we are trying to understand and come to grips with - not just the disease itself but how it is affecting us and our societies today, and what profound and permanent effects it might have wrought on our futures.
Starting with the mysterious circumstances of a virus that had lurked in Chinese bats for decades jumping to humans, Christakis lays out the next year roughly chronologically and thematically, tackling the issues as they arose, exploring them in depth whenever they arrive on the scene. Sometimes, like the appearance of COVID in humans, those depths are murky. Sometimes, like the genetic mapping of the disease or scientists often foiled in getting out information about COVID by their own standard processes, he can draw a straight line (or arrow shot!). Often, though, there are crooked lines and divergences. Sometimes those are by design of those involved, like politicians denying the seriousness of the disease, or born from seeking the origins of anti-maskers, conspiracy theories, and the tight-knit and occasionally impenetrable anti-vax communities. Wherever Christakis goes, though, he himself is always clear and always makes sense, even when it's a struggle to make sense of what he's discussing.
Above all, Christakis is even-handed. He does not hesitate to call out situations that resulted in preventable deaths. Neither does he hesitate to defend what may have been unpopular positions at the time when they made sense, or criticize popular positions or actions that he argues aren't worth the trade-offs they present. He does not judge people for being frightened, but also explains where fear and action are warranted, and where fear does more harm than good. He examines events and trends in "real time", while making educated speculations about where they will lead. He concludes by using history and science to tell us, to quote the title of the final chapter, how plagues end.
It's almost guaranteed that eventually we'll be inundated with countless books and articles gazing back on the COVID pandemic in detail. Maybe those future works will reveal all kinds of information that is still hidden or undiscovered, throwing light on a lot of items from the last year that currently remain dark. Until then, at this writing Apollo's Arrow remains far and away the best all-in-one source for readers who want the big and small pictures about how we got here and where we really are now.
WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: RA 644.C67 C57 2020
January 19, 2021