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Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  6,226 ratings  ·  1,003 reviews
With a death toll of between 50 and 100 million people and a global reach, the Spanish flu of 1918–1920 was the greatest human disaster, not only of the twentieth century, but possibly in all of recorded history. And yet, in our popular conception it exists largely as a footnote to World War I.

In Pale Rider, Laura Spinney recounts the story of an overlooked pandemic, traci

Hardcover, 332 pages
Published June 1st 2017 by Jonathan Cape
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Paul Bryant
Revived review as a public service during the current Coronavirus outbreak.

The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 is the gold standard of modern epidemics and this book is a solid account of what happened. It was really bad and it happened before medical science understood what was causing it. So should you be wondering what a REAL epidemic looks like, this was the big one.

Original review follows.


This wasn’t the jolliest read, but heck, my friendly GR poppets, life is not all ha-ha
Dec 21, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Update (July 2020): Please see comment stream below for interesting discussion, especially given situation with COVID-19.

Nerd addendum (Jan. 2018):
After my review below, the NY Times gave this book a favorable review as a science book and even made it an overall weekly "Editors' Choice." People can have different tastes in literature, but for science non-fiction, factual accuracy must override the esthetics of the storytelling. The mistake I pointed out below is something that a reviewer with
May 07, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: netgalley
Like so many others, I'm understandably drawn to pandemic literature right now. It is fascinating to compare how people have tackled, experienced, explained times similar to those we are presently living, whether that be through fiction or non-fiction. When it comes to the 1918 'Spanish' Flu, it seems incredible that a virus which killed between 50-100 million people worldwide can be so excised from cultural memory. Whatever the true count, it represents a near unimaginable number of deaths, esp ...more
Oct 22, 2017 rated it liked it
It's a 3.5 star book. It's a 4 star book up until about page 250. I would have given it a solid 4 if she had ended it there with some summation of her research. But from "Melancholy Muses" onward- it was HER opinion, supposition, context correlations to possible cause and effects to epidemics of flu in the future and/or possible wild bird/ domestic bird/ domestic pig transfer of evolving viruses theories etc. And some of that was just about a 2 star. So I thought that the "fact" and the science ...more
Debbie Zapata
Apr 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020printbooks
April 1 ~~ Review asap.

April 2 ~~ This is not exactly escapist reading these days, but I have had this book on my radar for months and naturally have become even more interested in the topic recently so I decided that I would risk virus overload and read it while I could compare in real time what was done then to what is being done now.

Each section of the book dealt with a different topic, such as a general history of influenza over the years, how we as individuals and as a society react to a p
May 03, 2020 rated it liked it
Published in 2017, this was an interesting look back (and forward) into the previous pandemic the world endured in 1918.

I was amazed at the similarities between our reaction in 2020 to Covid-19 and the world's reaction in 1918.

Newspapers and governments tried to downplay it.
People turned away from science and embraced more emotionally satisfying rituals (prayer, scapegoating to name two).
Because of WWI, the disease spread to all corners of the world, but the death rate varied wildly. There w
Dec 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I generally prefer fiction to non-fiction but this work is a major exception. Spinney is also a novelist and, apparently, a good one if the smooth and engaging style of this book is an accurate example.

Ever since watching the (very) old series Upstairs, Downstairs in which a major character dies of the Spanish Flu, I have been interested in this (to me) unknown epidemic which apparently killed so many. Over the years, I have noted any references to it. But these references, according to Pale Rid
Joy D
This book provides a global perspective on the “Spanish” influenza of 1918 (which did not originate in Spain) that killed between 50 and 100 million people. Chapter One recounts the history of flu viruses, providing the context for the rest of the book. The middle chapters focus on the virus itself – where it originated (most likely Kansas, US), how it spread, and its impact throughout the world. The final chapter brings up the potential for future pandemics and what we can do to be prepared. It ...more
Pale Rider is educational, about an interesting and very timely topic, but the writing is not very engaging and the organization of the book feels rather haphazard, so it was just a so-so for me.

This was our book club’s selection at what appears to be the last supper for a while, in mid March. The Covid virus was just emerging and we all were interested in the topic. I got it on audio, since I usually like to listen to non-fiction. However I lost steam about two-thirdth in, possibly due to Covid
One of these days, I'm actually going to write a story about an epidemic that will justify all the reading I've done on the subject. But in the meantime, I just find it fascinating. This is one of the better books about the 1919 epidemic that I've read. Laura Spinney goes into the history of humanity's interactions with influenza before talking about the events of that particular epidemic, and the way it affected the modern world.

As an interesting side note, one of the people she mentions shares
Joanne Gunter
Fascinating subject made boring by ponderous writing and an extreme reliance on speculation and anecdote.
Siobhan Johnson
I really enjoyed this! A very interesting and comprehensive study of an often overlooked period of history, the Spanish Flu of 1918(-1920, roughly), and how it impacted the world.

I'll get the few problems I had with it out of the way first, just to be comprehensive.

Problem 1. There was too much focus on male voices for my liking. Granted, this is probably (as in, almost certainly) because that is the majority of evidence available. I still felt a little cheated, though - you can't open the book
Mar 02, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, audio, medical
“Though there had never been a flu pandemic like 1918 before, once 1918 had happened, scientists realised that it could happen again.”

This was a well rounded look at the time period, science, literature, sociology, and emotion surrounding the Spanish Flu.

It also gave me a better understanding of H.P. Lovecraft’s world: a place where big cities and the Middle Ages lived side by side, where war, plague, and revolution tore through civilizations, where eugenics was mainstream, and death was t
Oct 02, 2017 rated it liked it
I wanted to like this book but I struggled to stay interested. Here and there it had some interesting sections but it often wandered off into places that lost my interest. It tried to do too much. It reads more like a Spanish Flu reader, like a collection of essays on topics related to the event. Chalk full of speculation, only to pull back and admit it is full of speculation.
Alex Givant
Mar 04, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Interesting read about ways that Spanish flu changed our world. I would like to read same book related to coronavirus.
Chris Steeden
Sep 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I don’t think I have had proper flu. You know the one where they say you feel so ill that you just cannot get out of bed. I have had flu-like symptoms for sure. Tiredness, aching all over, chill, fever etc. The Spanish flu is on another level. Have a read of this: ‘The Spanish flu infected one in three people on earth, or 500 million human beings. Between the first case recorded on 4 March 1918, and the last sometime in March 1920, it killed 50– 100 million people, or between 2.5 and 5 per cent ...more
Cindy Leighton
Horrified to learn that Donald Trump's family got their wealthy start from an insurance policy on his German immigrant grandfather who died from the flu, his widow and son investing his life insurance in property . . . oh how the world might be different today if Donald Trump's grandfather hadn't died of the Spanish flu.

I have a strange fascination with disease history - evolving understanding about the causes, mechanisms and cures of disease - fascinating! I have read more than I would care to
The captains and lieutenants who died while serving with the British Army – Vera Brittain’s ‘lost generation’ – numbered around 35,000.6 But six times as many Britons died of Spanish flu, and half of those were in the prime of life – young, fit men and women whose promise also lay ahead of them. They may therefore be considered more deserving of the label ‘lost generation’, though the flu orphans, and those who were in their mother’s womb in the autumn of 1918, may lay claim to it too, for diffe ...more
Emma Sea
Oct 07, 2018 rated it it was ok
The "how it changed the world" part was mostly around the development of germ theory, epidemiology, and public health. There was very, very little on lived experiences of the flu, and I don't think (?) there was anything at all on its effect on labor markets.

Not the riveting read I was expecting, but very thorough if you're into public health issues. 2.5 stars
Charles Haywood
Nov 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Since I am an apocalypse monger, but a practical one, I do not worry about alien invasions or the reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, but I do worry about pandemics. This book, Laura Spinney’s "Pale Rider," is a recent offering in the pandemic literature that has become popular in the past twenty years. It focuses on the only known pathogen likely to create a future pandemic, the influenza virus, through its greatest past outbreak, the Spanish Flu of 1918. I read books like these partially for h ...more
Like many people, I suspect, over the past few months I've developed an interest in the history and nature of pandemics. The Spanish Flu was one of the great horrors of the 20th century, killing somewhere between 50 to 100 million people. Despite this, it stalks our collective consciousness far less than the wars, natural disasters and political crises that predominate historical memory and are easier to build narratives about. Mass outbreaks of serious infectious disease are serious business, b ...more
Susan O
Pale Rider is a book that covers a topic that has emerged from our collective memory of WWI over the last 20 years or so. Although the flu pandemic of 1918 killed far more people than the war it is only recently that it has been talked about, written about and analyzed. In the final pages of the book, Spinney explains why we are just now beginning to understand this phenomenon - the lack of attention to the pandemic and to its wide consequences for the past, present, and future generations. We m ...more
Alex Sarll

"Seven million people died in the great war
A bout of influenza quadrupled that score.
Why pimp to posterity?
Why should they admire us? All the heroes of Valhalla
Weigh less than a virus.”

Momus' ‘Morality is Vanity’ was one of the reasons I was keen to read this new account of an insufficiently remembered hecatomb, the not-actually-Spanish* flu of 1918. And no, I have no idea why it’s not coming out for next year’s centenary, instead mingling with all the books marking a century since the Russian R
Bernie Gourley
May 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Before the present-day COVID-19 pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918 seemed to be a largely forgotten historical footnote. It was overshadowed by its more explosive, if less lethal, co-event, World War I – the war that was fallaciously believed to hold the promise of ending all wars. Furthermore, Spanish Flu never achieved the mystique of the Black Death. In fact, among the fascinating questions this book examines is why such a world-changing event isn’t more diligently studied. Of course, these da ...more
Aug 14, 2019 rated it liked it
Wide ranging exploration of the devastating, nearly-forgotten H1N1 flu pandemic that broke out at the end of WWI.

This was an advanced/intermediate-level work on the 1918 flu pandemic. Having advanced education and a general knowledge of early 20th Century history, particularly the history of the aftermath of World War I would be needed to really leverage its contents.

I have a keen interest in epidemiology. In pursuing that interest I’ve read several books on the mis-named Spanish flu of 1918. Sp
I don't read many nonfiction books, but with the pandemic the world is going through now, this felt very relevant. It's been 100 years since the Spanish Flu and even though we learned a lot scientifically, in some ways we make the same mistakes again. Many people thought the Spanish Flu wasn't as big of a deal as it was, or didn't think precautions were necessary. Unfortunately this is happening now, especially in America. We also know that many of the people dying are poor or POC, likely due to ...more
Nov 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a book about the Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1920. The author provides an international perspective on the great epidemic and its spread around the world, as well as an update on current research on this mother of all epidemics. It compares well with and complements John Barry’s book on the Great Influenza (2004), although it lacks Barry’s truly terrifying descriptions of the havoc caused by the disease as it spread through the US.

The Spanish Flu got its name because it was reported on openly
Re-read 2019

While not my favorite book on the Spanish Flu epidemic, I do like that it looks at how the disease affected more than Europe. It dedicates a few chapters on the flu in Asia and Australia.

This book about the Spanish Flu tried to do what other books on the disease haven't done. It discusses the effect of the Flu on countries in Eastern Europe and Asia. Most books on the disease focus on Canada, The United States, and Western Europe. In adding Eastern Europe and Asia to the discussion
Trigger warnings: pandemic, lots and lots and lots of death, mentions of war.

I've been interested in this since it came out, so I was very excited to discover that my local library had a copy of it. Medical history is my jam and I'd never read anything about the Spanish Flu, so reading this was pretty freaking eye opening.

Let's be real here: the bulk of what we hear about the Spanish Flu and its death toll is about Europe and North America, yes? That's where we all assume the bulk of the death
Dec 21, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I did learn some interesting things from this book, but ultimately it wasn't what I was looking for regarding a social history of the Spanish flu.
The author fairly warned her audience at the beginning that she was going to circle around and around the topic instead of telling about it in a linear format. Unfortunately, that made the book feel fragmented and superficial. I wanted a thought-provoking social history about how governments and individuals responded the the threat of the flu, the rest
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