New Books Explore the Many Ways Covid Has Altered Our Lives

Notes on a Long Year
By Charles Finch
288 pages Knopf. $28.

Would you pay $28 — the cost of a book — to re-experience the Covid-19 pandemic, day by day? heck right? Well, it turns out to be deeply therapeutic. Reading this beautiful, bittersweet memoir — which Finch, a mystery writer, structures like a diary — feels like group therapy, a decanting and reprocessing of the little memories, the traumas and the observations that often got swept away in the wash of big scientific and political arguments.

Things like: what we wanted to stock up on when we feared, in March 2020, that there’d be massive food shortages, and what that revealed to us about what we love and who we are. Finch recalls all the distinct varieties of fear we felt, and our wish not to admit — even to our friends — how afraid we were, or how wrong we had been. He reminds us that many people found elements of locked-down life pleasurable, even preferable, before it became necessary to tamp down those feelings in deference to the pandemic’s broader status as a tragedy.

And he takes profound, frank, luxurious baths in the emotions of distaste and despair, which dominated during the pandemic. His memoir of him incisively suggests they reveal the depth of our sees itactually, for other aspects of our world that we didn’t want to lose.

The Epic Rivalries and Heroic Science Behind the Race to the Coronavirus Vaccine
By Brendan Borrell
320 pages Mariner Books. $28.

In this tale of America’s pandemic response, heroic scientists and public servants whip out their lab coats to save the country. The title is misleading. Borrell doesn’t only offer an inside look at the warp-speed vaccine-development process and rollout but also the government’s struggles over mask policy and the release of statistics while his own quarterback, ex-President Donald Trump, was running interference on his team .

Borrell had great access inside the Trump administration, and there are juicy details here. But his effort to make the pandemic-response story read like a cross between a Marvel movie and a police procedural falls flat. Veteran bureaucrats are “dudes” who have “seen some [expletive].” They curse so much that you wonder if their quotes were selected for the presence of an obscenity rather than for their content; the story becomes confusing, cluttered with characters who might not have needed to be there if they hadn’t nicknamed the Moderna vaccine “Yasssss Bitchhhhh.” Long ago, “The First Shots” was optioned by HBO, and it’s not clear if readers were the intended audience or TV producers.

The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine
By Gregory Zuckerman
384 pages Portfolio. $30.

This account of the race to develop Covid-19 vaccines contains many of the same episodes as “The First Shots,” down to a particular molecular biochemist’s ski-lodge realization that SARS-CoV-2 was dangerous. But it’s more focused and, to its benefit, traces its story much further back in time. Zuckerman answers a question still circulating among both vaccine fans and skeptics: How could scientists develop the Covid-19 vaccines so quickly?

The answer is that they didn’t. The Covid-19 vaccines were built on the backs of decades-long efforts to create other vaccines, like one for the Zika virus and, in particular, several failures to develop a useful HIV vaccine. Paradoxically, Zuckerman’s might be the vaccine-science book for a vaccine skeptic because of its detailed accounts of those failures. The scientists it portrays are not perfect, not Marvel heroes, but people who struggle — and who then learn from those struggles. Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, and Ugur Sahin, the CEO of BioNTech, are depicted in especially fascinating relief, though Ozlem Tureci, Sahin’s female co-founder, is somewhat neglected.

The Search for the Origin of Covid-19
By Alina Chan and Matt Ridley
416 pages Harper. $29.99.

Chan and Ridley write with urgency in defending why people ought to take the SARS-CoV-2 lab-leak hypothesis seriously. Even if a reader doesn’t agree with them, that urgency inspires gripping depictions of what viruses are, how infectious-disease laboratories work and wonderfully lucid descriptions of bats.

But after gathering a lot of puzzle pieces, Chan and Ridley are unwilling to assemble it into a picture — to take a final stand on whether they think Covid likely did emerges from a laboratory accident. They assert most strongly, rather, that the people who want to investigate a lab-leak theory are persecuted and mocked as conspiracy theorists. This strays into tedious cancel-culture territory and is, anyway, no longer true. And also: Does it matter? Chan and Ridley powerfully recount how dangerous pathogens can both leak from a lab and emerge in nature. Ultimately, though, it’s not clear why knowing how the pandemic came about would immunize us against all the other missteps that made it so devastating.

To Metamorphosis
By Bruno Latour
Translated by Julie Rose
180 pages Polity. $59.95.

Latour’s astonishing meditation orbits the question of whether there is any good that might come from the pandemic. In the process, he tips over all kinds of American sacred cows. Most striking might be how Latour demolishes the supposed opposition between feeling “free” — as in, free to not obey lockdowns or even care about Covid-19 — and feeling aware that one’s life is inextricably intertwined with the lives of others and that one must , say, get vaccinated out of a duty to them. Real freedom, Latour says, comes in acknowledging the truth. It is the feeling of relief and liberation one gets when one accepts a reality that may in a literal sense be burdensome. True freedom is in knowingfor example, that you aren’t just “free” to go to a packed bar during an outbreak when you also work at a nursing home.

And locked down, he suggests, we may have become more in touch with truths — like our interrelatedness — that we previously strove to ignore. He launches a plea to respect the instincts that emerged during the pandemic — he insists we not forget them.

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