The Book Oprah Should Choose Next: 'The Plague' by Albert Camus

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET

As a natural disaster morphed into something else and water turned New Orleans into a stew of despair and disease and death, I searched --- like many others --- for something useful to do. A donation was easy. But it was hardly enough. I still had to find a way to explain this tragedy to myself.

Searching for a smart thing to think is difficult when you have no frame of reference. But there are a limited number of stories in this world, and a limited number of responses to them. So I went to my bookshelves, looking for a writer who had contemplated great loss and human folly.

And there it was: "The Plague," the 1947 masterpiece by Albert Camus.

Most readers know this novel because it was Assigned Reading in school. If you were taking something like 20th Century Thought, you read it in English. If you were studying French, you struggled through it in the original. Either way, the pages are, for you, spoiled by the chalk dust of the classroom.

What you remember is this: The novel is an allegory. The plague stands for the spread of Nazi ideology. The book is a study of how a community reacts to a deadly invasion that isolates it. How should people act when faced with a daily threat to life? How can they survive when an arbitrary fate marks some for immediate death, others for a later grave? What do citizens owe their neighbors? And, in the end, what does it all mean?

These are questions that have excited A-students for decades now. And bored the rest of the class to tears.

Well, "The Plague" is a better book than the one taught in schools. For one thing, it has a remarkably sympathetic narrator in Dr. Rieux, who is first to notice something amiss --- rats appearing in unlikely places, their bodies twitching and blood spurting from their mouths. Rieux's wife has just gone to a French sanitarium in the hope of a cure for her tuberculosis; confinement is much on his mind.

Confinement in Oran, Algeria --- that's an even gloomier prospect. The coastal city where Camus set his novel may overlook water, but its energies are dull and worldly. People worship money and devote all their time to making it. Love flourishes briefly, then dissolves into habit. Government is slow and formal; it is shockingly late before it agrees that frothing rats and dying people have any connection.

In short, a thoroughly modern city.

Okay, "The Plague" isn't fun to read. How could it be --- this is the account of a doctor who spends twenty hours a day watching people die. And yet I couldn't put the novel down, for it describes --- with great precision --- the stages of this kind of disaster. At first, Dr. Rieux notes, people were "worried and irritated." Their first reaction: "to abuse the authorities." (Sound familiar?) Later, we hear that "officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic." (Where have you heard that before?) "The newspapers, needless to say, complied with the instructions given them: optimism at all costs." (Bet that's not an idea new to you.)

The book has so many one-liners I started underlining them. "When an abstraction sets to killing you, you've got to get busy with it" and "One grows out of pity when it's useless" are modest samples of the brainpower at work here. But where the book really achieves greatness is in the last 50 pages, where Camus spells out the origin of the plague (it's in us, in each and every one of us) and what that means for our lives together. There's great tenderness beneath this savage analysis --- especially in "the passionate indignation we feel when confronted by the anguish all men share."

For Camus, fighting terror is our lot, indeed our glory: "We learn in times of pestilence that there are more things to admire in men than to despise." That message --- harsh and lyrical, terrible and ennobling --- is worth a hundred bromides from the feelgood gurus who crowd the airwaves with solutions that solve nothing. In days like these, "The Plague" is 308 pages of pure sanity.