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14Mar

The best books to understand vaccines– and why some refuse them

As Covid-19 vaccinations gain speed around the world, Eula Biss picks books that explore this huge advance in medical science

Exactly one year ago, I began to search my bookshelves for Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. By the time I remembered that I had returned it to the library, the library was closed, and so was my child’s school, and we seemed to be living through a new adaptation of that novel. In 1665, Defoe’s narrator wanders the empty streets of London, where quarantines and curfews have been imposed. He tracks the rising and falling numbers reported by the weekly bills of mortality and witnesses a mass burial.

All this now feels eerily current, but I first read that book to learn about what life was like before the advent of vaccination. A Journal of the Plague Year was published in 1722, long before germ theory was validated. Defoe’s narrator mentions a curious rumour that disease might be caused by tiny dragons visible only through the lens of a microscope. He then dismisses that possibility as fanciful and highly improbable.

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