Reading My Way Through a Pandemic with Post-Apocalyptic Literature

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From The Literary Hub:

I have long loved post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s a fascination that goes back to my teen years. One of my earliest end-of-civilization reads was Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which a comet is hurtling toward Earth, poised to destroy civilization but not all humans, at least not the ingenious ones. One of my favorite scenes in that book involves a scientist double-bagging books and sinking them in a septic tank. And not just any books: books that will help rebuild civilization, like manuals on the internal combustion engine. It is an enticingly clever plan I’ve been meaning to replicate ever since.

Instead, I’ve settled for keeping a massive supply of water in my basement. I am both intrigued by the idea of being that prepared but conscious of not slipping into obsession, so I have several lifetimes’ supply of bandages (including some that claim to staunch battle wound bleeding) but no food rations. Because that would be a step too far.

My fascination is such that my best friend is my best friend due to it. When my first book came out, I was at a book festival, manning a table lonelier than the sole survivor of a nuclear attack, when I turned around to survey my neighbors. At the table behind me, a pleasant, sweet-faced soccer-mom type displayed an array of meticulously arranged books with a delightful light blue cover adorned with a smattering of birds. I squinted and made out the title: Pandemic. The birds represented the vector for the disease that strikes in her book. I loved her immediately.

This past spring, I was scared, but all we had to do was get through a couple of weeks of “flattening the curve,” I told myself. I bought too much frozen food and prepared to ride it out, like the heroine in one of my post-apocalyptic novels.

. . . .

As two weeks became a month, which bled into a stunted summer, I turned my attention to what has gotten me through so many of the difficult times of my life: books. At first, I couldn’t focus, so I took a familiar route: read something so compulsively page-turning that I couldn’t help but be led along. I turned to my brother, also a writer, for a recommendation.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about Salem’s Lot by Stephen King,” he said. “It’s about vampires, not disease, but it reminds me of the pandemic. Like how everyone’s in denial and thinking nothing bad could ever happen there, but by the time anyone catches on to what’s going on, the town is overrun.”

It did the trick, showing me something about my world while carrying me away from it. After that, I revisited some old favorites: Earth AbidesAlasBabylon; World War Z. Each story destroyed the fragile fabric of modern life in its own way, but all presented me with the question that makes post-apocalyptic fiction so alluring: if the niceties and nuances, the comforts and conventions of modern living were suddenly stripped away, who would we be, really?

No book made me wonder this more than The Postman (a fantastic book not to be judged by the unfortunate movie adaptation starring that wrecker of post-apocalyptic books, Kevin Costner). In it, a humble civil servant finds meaning post-end-of-civilization through carrying out the seemingly simple task of delivering the mail. There is an evil warlord, and somewhere along the way we find out what the warlord used to be in the before times. Our times. He was an insurance salesman. I imagined a warlord somewhere in me too, beneath the couch potato with a penchant for avoiding the planks and 15-minute high-intensity interval training video I keep promising myself I’ll do.

But the pandemic taught me that civilization-wide upheaval is often not as splashy as it is in books. Instead of warlords, it’s harried moms at Target that’ll get you, snatching the last of the frozen mozzarella sticks with a look equal parts ruthlessness and apology in their worried eyes.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

A PG was reading the OP, a phrase arose from the grimy depths of the dank sub-basement of his mind, “The word is not the thing.”

PG recalled the phrase being tossed about during his college years, shortly before the Russian Revolution. It was from a semantics class and simply meant that when you talk or write about a loaf of bread, such talk or writing is something quite different from an actual loaf of bread.

Moving up a notch, the term, “Russian Revolution”, is something quite different than what happened in Russia between 1917 and 1923. For one thing, “Russian Revolution” didn’t kill anyone while the actual Russian Revolution resulted in the deaths of a whole bunch of people.

PG did a little research and discovered the following, more lengthy quote:

The words are maps, and the map is not the territory. The map is static; the territory constantly flows. Words are always about the past or the unborn future, never about the living present. The present is ever to quick for them; by the time words are out, it is gone.

The author of the quote was a Polish scholar named Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski (no, PG has no idea how it is pronounced) who is often credited with developing a field of academic inquiry called general semantics. (Korzybski viewed General Semantics as something different than Semantics, but, again, PG can’t help you there.)

Korzybski was born to a wealthy aristocratic family in Warsaw, served in the Russian Army during World War I until he was wounded and, somehow, made his way to the United States during the latter part of the war and started writing books and giving lectures.

Evidently, Korzybski was a fun teacher, as illustrated by the following anecdote.

One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think,” said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cookies.” The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. “You see,” Korzybski remarked, “I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.”

The author, William Burroughs, attended one of Korzybski’s workshops and Robert A. Heinlein named a character after him in his 1940 short story “Blowups Happen”

Back to the OP, of course a book about a pandemic and an actual pandemic are two entirely different things and experiencing one is unlike experiencing the other no matter how real the book seems.

Finally, a short video of Korzybski himself, explaining a bit about General Semantics.

8 thoughts on “Reading My Way Through a Pandemic with Post-Apocalyptic Literature”

  1. The actual essay is poignant and I can see most of what she means. I hit overload in October, my Tea Cup is full, and they keep pouring more into the cup.

    I have to warn you, once you start with Korzybski, there is no turning back.

    TL;DR – No one, of course, will read any of these links. HA!

    Here is an essay that touches on his ideas:

    Getting Our Stories Together

    This is the website:

    The Institute of General Semantics

    This is an interesting article from the site:

    The General Semantics and Science Fiction of Robert Heinlein and A. E. Van Vogt

    This is a taste of what he wrote:


    Then of course there is Hayden White

    Hayden White, Who Explored How History Is Made, Dies at 89

    “Perhaps White’s most controversial idea, and one for which he was so often shunned by his fellow historians, is that ‘all stories are fictions,’ ” Robert Doran, a professor at the University of Rochester who edited that volume, said by email. “White held that while historical facts are scientifically verifiable, stories are not. Stories are made, not found in the historical data; historical meaning is imposed on historical facts by means of the choice of plot-type, and this choice is inevitably ethical and political at bottom.

    “This is what White called ‘emplotment,’ a term he coined,” Dr. Doran continued. “Even the most basic beginning-middle-end structure of a story represents an imposition: The historian chooses where to begin, where to end, and what points are important in the middle. There is no scientific test for ‘historical significance.’ ”

    This is the modern version of the basic idea, but more scientific:

    The Case Against Reality, by Donald Hoffman

    I posted the links for the book and lectures in October. See how I started this mentioning October? It has all come full circle.

    BTW, Sadly, Elliot’s comment on that page misses the point.

    Now you begin to see why my Tea Cup is overflowing.

      • It was fun in the beginning until I looked around and saw all the people sleepwalking through life.

        – It’s best not to wake sleepwalkers.

        All I can do is leave notes in a bottle for people to find. I realized that I can be rather blatant about it, since no one is actually paying attention.

        I’ve been doing this for decades, with many a bottle lost as the web washes sites away with time.

  2. I remember my father going through a can of tuna and a package of crackers one day. Then someone noticed it was cat food.

    “Damn cat eats better than I do.”

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