Pandemic Non-Reading

Daniel Francis

Looking for a book NOT to read during a pandemic? You might consider Midnight in Chernobyl (Simon & Schuster), about the devastating nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1983. I began it just about the time the world was shutting down. As the Coronavirus made its implacable way across Europe and then to North America, I was being educated about the many different things that can go wrong in a badly designed nuclear power plant. Steadily my mood darkened and my anxiety level rose. The daily news was bad enough, but Adam Higginbotham’s relentless narrative was truly scary. At one point following the initial “incident”—which was caused by a combination of faulty design and human error—the burning reactor was within days, perhaps hours, of a huge explosion that would have sent clouds of poisonous radiation westward, making much of Europe uninhabitable for a century. Only the bravery of a small group of firefighters, all of whom died, managed to forestall an Armageddon much worse than our pandemic. As it was, a large part of Ukraine had to be permanently evacuated; it is now known as “the Zone of Alienation.” The accident was hair-raising enough; then I had to endure close descriptions of what radiation sickness does to its victims. I seemed to be purposefully giving myself nightmares. Of course I could have quit reading, but the book is so riveting, the characters and events so well drawn, that I had to find out what happened (even though, in a general sense, I already knew). That said, I’ve never been as happy to come to the end of a book. Apparently there is an award-winning HBO miniseries about the accident. It can wait.

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Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press). He lives in North Vancouver. Read more of his work at


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