Samuel Weber, professor of humanities at Northwestern and director of the Paris Program in Critical Theory, writes about writing about plague. Fatal pandemics are medical and social crises. But they are also crises of understanding. Incurable, unpreventable, such diseases challenge any society’s philosophical, theological, and quotidian foundations and some of our profoundest literature has been written in response. Weber’s new book, Preexisting Conditions: Recounting the Plague, immerses readers in this literature. As we emerge from the Covid pandemic—our emotional, economic, and ideological stability still badly damaged (and the future of our public health deeply uncertain)—this erudite, challenging book seems essential for our historical moment.

For most of human history—until the conception of germ theory in the late nineteenth-century and the subsequent development of antibiotics, antibacterial vaccines, and modern public health infrastructure in the early twentieth century—the primary cause of death among all human populations was infectious disease. People did...

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