In a thriving northern city in late summer, a recently returned traveler feels unwell. Soon, after presenting some extremely worrisome symptoms, he is dead. People all do their business the same. Winter comes and they crawl inside. More are dying, but when summer arrives, those people gather outside and struggle to hide signs of illness “to prevent authorities from closing their homes.”

The year is 1664, the beginning of what would later be called the Great Plague of London. Over the course of a year and a half, that plague killed 100,000 people in the city — about a quarter of the population. Recording those events is Daniel Defoe, whose book Robinson Crusoe was still flying off the shelves when it published A diary of the year of the plague six decades after the great pandemic, in 1722. He had seen much in his long life: not only the plague, but also the Great Fire of London, a freak hurricane that cut down millions of trees across England, wars with the Netherlands and the inside of a debtor prison.

Defoe was also a born rebel, constantly in trouble with the crown because of his political and religious disagreements, which he aired through leaflets and pamphlets. In loghe pilloried a government that was unprepared for the pandemic and followed a template all too familiar today: look for a rival nation to blame, fudge the numbers (“there were twenty more who were really dead of the plague in that parish, but had of the spotted fever or other diseases hidden except others”), grudgingly acknowledging that something is wrong, and finally encouraging people to live as if nothing could be done about it is, the poor because they have to, the rich because they bribed the police to look the other way so they can visit their clubs during the lockdown.

Soon the quacks, who sell fake, “never fail preservatives against the infection.” Meanwhile, the real doctors and nurses on the front lines right and left are dying, “having risked their lives to lose them in the service of humanity.” Corpses pile up in the street, with no place to store them and no one to bury them. Those who can escape the city. Those who can’t hide in their homes, and the economy grinds to a halt. Then, as suddenly as it seemed, the plague strikes, not because of anything anyone has done, but simply because of the vagaries of nature, “a visible call to all of us to gratitude.”

In 1664, it should be noted that Daniel Defoe was only 4 years old. He wrote as if he were an eyewitness to the events of the Great Plague, which is why some critics have dismissed his book as mere fiction. A closer look reveals that Defoe dug deep into the public records and interviewed survivors, making this a groundbreaking work of epidemiology and journalism and literature. At the start of our third year of pandemic, A diary of the year of the plague makes for provocative and, 300 years later, timely reading.

Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.