History repeats itself, or to put it more starkly, history is always repeating itself. Nothing is new. This book is a great reminder of that. The coronavirus is nothing new. Humanity has faced this before, many many times!
Defoe’s work is a bit of a conundrum. Written in 1722, about 60 years after the last bubonic plague outbreak in London, it has been classified as a work of fiction, but most scholars now consider it non-fiction with some slight fictional flourishes. Most of the descriptions, dates, places, numbers have been confirmed as accurate.
What struck me most about The Journal of the Plague Year, is how it almost completely mirrored my own state of mind during the first couple months of this current pandemic (until I instituted a news blackout). Just like the narrator, I too constantly was checking infection/death figures. I complained about the inconsistencies of statistics. I ruminated on every medical theory. I worried about every cough I heard echo from a neighboring apartment, just as Defoe’s characters react with suspicion to anyone walking with a limp or wearing a hat (to hide possible signs of infection).
Defoe’s pandemic shares all the same social characteristics as the current situation, but without the overwhelming amplification of social media and 24 hour news networks. The book can be a bit of a slog as whole sections track the death counts throughout London’s neighborhoods, over and over again. Just like our own mind cycles through the same stats and repeats the same scenarios incessantly, Defoe’s narrator repeats himself constantly. It’s important to remember that this is meant to be a diary. Other than the narrator, there aren’t many other characters of substance. Nothing other than the plague happens. There is no B story. No love interests. Just death, fear and survival.
I began reading this book just as I was incorporating a news blackout. This book kind of reconnected me to the idea that “the News”, in its modern inception, serves no purpose other than reconfirming/instigating our own beliefs. The world still happens without “the News”. People still talk to you about current events. You can see things on the street. Look with your own eyes. Important facts tend to trickle through, no matter how hard you try to firewall yourself. You won’t be completely out of the loop unless to spend your quarantine in a remote ashram in the mountains of northern India.
Don’t rely on the media to form opinions for you, or to solidify the ones you already have. The citizens of Defoe’s world didn’t have daily access to written/visual reports about “the News”, and they still panicked!