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October 10, 2014

Ebola has made a 1995 New York Times Bestseller very relevant


The_Hot_Zone_(cover)News about the Ebola crisis is everywhere. You turn on your computer, phone, television, radio, whatever, and you are bombarded with information about the spread of the disease. Many of us are curious about it and are following the news with baited breath, no matter how terrified we actually are of the whole thing. But what, you might ask, does the Ebola virus have to do with publishing?

Well, apparently the publishing world understood the morbid curiosity of Americans in regards to viral outbreaks before there were actual viral outbreaks in America for them to be interested in. Exhibit A–The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston. This book is horrifyingly descriptive in regards to the details of the Ebola virus and what it does to a person, it’s all true, and readers love it.

Preston got the idea for the book while writing science articles for the New Yorker in the early ‘90’s. He got a tip from a scientist friend about an (mini) Ebola outbreak in Reston, Virginia that occurred in 1989, when a group of lab monkeys contracted the virus. The whole thing got out of hand and soldiers in space suits started rushing into contaminated areas trying to prevent mass chaos: the perfect setting for a thrilling scientific work of nonfiction, right?

The incident was meant to be classified but, as Preston tells Affairs Today, “In a typical military blunder, they forgot to classify it,” and so he was free to say whatever he wanted about the incident. He wrote an article in The New Yorker about the 1989 outbreak (“Crisis in the Hot Zone”), got a lot of attention for it, and decided to turn it into a book. Anchor Books published The Hot Zone in 1995 as a mass market paperback. It eventually hit number one on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.

Preston has since written other books about various infectious diseases and terrifying viruses. Other authors quickly picked up on the trend, and then  film directors jumped on the bandwagon The Outbreak, a film loosely based on Preston’s book, was released in 1995.

The Hot Zone is a staple in school science classrooms across the country, where it scares the piss out of kids who are really just trying to survive their own body’s changes, let alone those that would occur if they were to become infected with Ebola. (Yes, I had to read this terrifying account at the tender age of 13 years old, for my 7th grade science class. I was scared of getting a nosebleed for months afterwards, afraid that blood would then start pouring out of my body until I died. Yeah, that’s just one of the many gruesome images you get with this book).

While the book’s popularity may have hit a lull in the 2000’s, interest in The Hot Zone and Richard Preston has been piqued in light of the current situation. He even did a Reddit AMA in August where he answered questions from panicky redditors on how to avoid the virus and what their chances of contracting it were.

So, is The Hot Zone the only book you need to read if you want to understand all of the ins and outs about the Ebola virus? Probably not. But, is it a book you should read in light of today’s outbreak and your morbid curiosity? Definite possibility. It’s scary, fascinating, gut wrenching, educational and never boring or confusing. Either way, it’s a fascinating look at the virus, written before it was famous.