NPR Story
10:29 am
Mon September 10, 2012

Lessons For College Students From 'The Zombie War'

Originally published on Tue September 11, 2012 12:26 pm

Several colleges and universities have adopted a common read program, where freshmen read the same book during the summer and discuss it once on campus.

Author Max Brooks' World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is one of the less traditional books appearing on required reading lists. The book captures scenes from a global zombie apocalypse through a series of first-person accounts.

Despite the focus on the undead, Brooks believes the book provides a good history lesson. "Before I'm a zombie nerd, before I'm a science-fiction nerd, I am a history nerd," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "Everything that I put in World War Z has actually happened at some point in human history. All I did was zombify it."

St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, picked the book for freshmen to facilitate conversations about globalization, ethics and mortality. Hayley Barone, a freshman at St. Edward's, and Brooks talk about the book's lessons for college students.


Interview Highlights

On the structure of the book

Brooks: "I decided to use the oral accounts because I am painfully dyslexic. And when I was growing up, audio books were the only way I could study. And one audio book that I listened to just for pleasure was Studs Terkel's The Good War, and that book never left me. And I wanted that to be the template for describing a global crisis, because I thought an oral history is a great way to bring in so many voices, literally, from all around the world."

Barone: "The people who enjoy reading long stories ... there's a lot to sink your teeth into for this book. If you can't sit still for a long time and you like shorter stories, you can also read one person's story and then skip to the end and read another person's story. ... It doesn't have to ... read like a traditional novel, necessarily, and that has been a good thing."

On discussions about the book on campus

Barone: "I think it's really a unifying thing for the class, as opposed to, like, it's a required reading. We have writing classes, and we have done writing assignments about the different vignettes. But overall, it's kind of supposed to be a general education where everyone has something in common to talk about, and I really feel like it has brought us together as a class. ... I think the point was, with this type of book, that everyone can find something interesting in it. And, as I said, who doesn't love zombies nowadays?"

On Max Brooks' recommended read

Brooks: "When I was 16, the first book I ever actually purchased with my own money, in fact, and had read on my own time was Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. ... It opened up a world into geopolitics, which continues to drive me to this day. And I would never have done that had I just listened to my current events class."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And now we continue our TOTN freshman reads series that many colleges and university freshmen are discussing the book all first year students were assigned to read over the summer. We've already talked about two perennial favorites: "Guns, Germs, and Steel"- and happy birthday, Jared Diamond - and "Enrique's Journey" by Sonia Nazario. Today, Max Brooks and "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Apocalypse" selected by St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.

It's hard to imagine a more practical offering for incoming college freshman. But if you'd like to nominate another unusual choice for a freshman read, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at nprg.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now from Los Angeles is Max Brooks. Nice to have you back with us.

MAX BROOKS: Very nice to be back. Thank you.

CONAN: And I know you had ambitious hopes for this book that it would become a New York Times bestseller, which it did. Did you ever think it would be taught in college?

BROOKS: Actually my ambitious hope is that it would be published.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, you got through that. But was it a surprise to learn that it's been selected as a freshman read?

BROOKS: Yes, oh, well, deeply. I'm surprised that I'm in a position to teach anybody anything.

CONAN: And as you thought about it, though, what do you think this particularly has to teach incoming freshman?

BROOKS: Well, you know, before I'm a zombie nerd, before I'm a science-fiction nerd, I am a history nerd. And everything that I put in "World War Z" has actually happened at some point in human history. All I did was zombify it.

CONAN: Well...

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...everything actually happened - the lobotomizer?

BROOKS: Yes. Well, the - that's - there was a time called the Middle Ages, where people bashed at each other with pieces of steel. And pretty much weapons were designed to chop other people's heads off.

CONAN: Cave them in perhaps but...

BROOKS: Or cave the in. It's called a mace or a club or a morning star.

CONAN: So you adapted all of these lessons in history, and so actually we asked St. Edward's University why they chose the book. And Alex Barron, an assistant professor and the director of freshman studies responded with a statement, which I'm going to read: This year a committee made up of faculty staff and students decided on the theme How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse: Dystopias and Sustainability. Once we had the theme, the committee overwhelmingly chose "World War Z" as the common text all incoming students would read. We picked it because it's a smart book that raises all kinds of issues from globalization and the spread of pandemics to ethics and the morality of letting some populations die to save others. Plus, it grabs your attention right away and doesn't let go. We knew the incoming students would actually read it.

Finally, as someone who teaches literature and film, I wanted our students to look closely at the popular culture that's all around them and to think about monsters and what scares us as a culture at a particular moment. So that's pretty good praise there.

BROOKS: That's quite a compliment. That's certainly what I wish I could back in time to show to my English teacher in 1986.

CONAN: I'm sure it's just as valid for "Ethan Frome."

BROOKS: Well, isn't that the case for all of us?

CONAN: It is.

BROOKS: A lot of teachers. Everybody talks about their teachers who said, you will make it, but we never talk about the ones who said, don't give up sweeping streets.

CONAN: Have you gotten any questions from students who've read your book?

BROOKS: All the time. Mainly about where did I come up with all the things that happened. And I said I actually didn't. I just reached back into history. Or when people try to argue with me about the book. They say the Battle of Yonkers could never happen. I say, well, guess what, it already happened in South Africa against the Zulus when they creamed the British Army.

CONAN: Well, let's get a real student on the line. Joining us is Haley Baron(ph). And by the way, if you'd like to nominate another unusual choice that might be good for a freshman read, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Haley Baron is a freshman at St. Edward's University in Austin. And she read Max's book for her school's common read. Nice to have you with us today.

HALEY BARON: Hi.

CONAN: What do you think of the book?

BARON: Personally, I really loved it, and I know that overwhelmingly, the freshman population loved it too. We definitely thought that it was appropriate for St. Edward's to bring in, kind of, the popular culture, as Alex had said in her statement, and it really got everyone interested in reading it because of, you know, who doesn't love zombies nowadays?

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, those who they are trying to eat their brains. But as you've discussed it, you've been talking about it in class?

BARON: Yes, we have writing classes, and we have done writing assignments about the different vignettes. But overall, it's kind of supposed to be a general education where everyone has something in common to talk about, and I really feel like it has brought us together as a class.

CONAN: You've got the author on the line with you. Any questions for Max Brooks?

BARON: Actually, yes. I was wondering, why did you use the structure of the individual accounts and did "Hiroshima" by John Hershey influence that style a little?

BROOKS: That's an excellent question. I decided to use the oral accounts because I am painfully dyslexic. And when I was growing up, audio books where the only way I could study. And one audio book that I listened to just for pleasure was Studs Terkel's "The Good War." And that book never left me. And I wanted that to be the template for describing a global crisis because I thought an oral history is a great way to bring in so many voices, literally, from all around the world.

BARON: And I completely agree with that. And my second question is, how much involvement have you had on the movie and how does the story transfer from its literary format to the film format?

BROOKS: Oh, that's also a great question. Well, as far as my involvement - did you see "Jaws?"

CONAN: She probably - she wasn't born yet when "Jaws" was made.

BROOKS: Oh, well, Neal, you remember in "Jaws" how it was based on a book by Peter Benchley and he co-wrote the script and even had that great cameo in the movie where he was the news reporter.

CONAN: Yup.

BROOKS: So, you know, that level of involvement that he had?

BARON: Mm-hmm.

BROOKS: I didn't.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So they've - you've given them any notes on the script or anything like?

BROOKS: That's an excellent question. And whether I have or not, they (unintelligible). I don't know what they're doing. I haven't read the script. I did go to the movie set once and it looks pretty cool. But it is firmly their movie, and I'm not sure how much they've strayed the book - from the book.

CONAN: Did they write you a check at least?

BROOKS: Yes. Yes, they did. And that was probably the biggest piece of paper that had my name on it.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, until the poster comes out.

BROOKS: Hopefully my name will be on the poster.

CONAN: It'll be interesting to see. So, Haley Baron, you've been talking - whether this has been discussed in class or is it more discussed in the cafeteria?

BARON: I would have to say probably discussed more in the cafeteria, because in class we - it was a summer reading book. And so we have implemented it sometimes but, you know, we're sticking more to the syllabus. But I think it's really a unifying thing for the class, as opposed to, like, it's a required reading, you know?

And the format, I think, with the vignette has been a positive and a negative, because the people who enjoy reading long stories can really, you know, there's a lot to sink your teeth into for this book. But if you like - if you can't sit still for a long time and you like shorter stories, you can also read one person's story and then skip to the end and read another person's story. You know, it doesn't have to be, you know, read like a traditional novel, necessarily, and that has been a good thing.

CONAN: Was the director of Freshman Studies there at St. Edward's University right - Alex Barron - Barron I guess - when she said, at least the people would read it?

BARON: Yes, that's exactly, I think, the point was with this type of book that everyone can find something interesting in it. And as I said, who doesn't love zombies nowadays? They're like the coolest thing.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for joining us and good luck in school.

BARON: Thank you.

CONAN: Haley Baron joined us by phone from St. Edward's University. Max Brooks is still with us. By the way, we wanted to play a clip of tape from when you're on this program back in 2006 and we had callers play along as if the zombie apocalypse had taken place, and you gave advice to a caller dealing with some family issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

CONAN: And let's get Mike on the line. Mike calling from Rochester, New York.

MIKE: Hi. Fascinating program, and actually you guys, kind of, touched on a family problem that we've been having ever since the war died down. Two of my relatives became zombies. One of them was my cousin, and he was our, sort of, handyman type, so things are kind of breaking down all over the place with him gone. We had to dispatch him, taken off his head with a hacksaw. It made quite a mess. But the other one is my brother-in-law, and we didn't take him out yet. I guess, you know, he's my sister's husband and all that, took care of the family's wills and everything. He's up in the attic.

CONAN: Max, we have a problem here.

MIKE: Yeah.

BROOKS: It's a very typical problem.

MIKE: My first question is...

CONAN: Well, let's address this problem. You're not the only person with somebody up in the attic, Mike.

BROOKS: Well, you said that he is your sister's husband. You know he's not anymore, and I think you know what needs to be done.

CONAN: Mike, are you going to do what needs to be done?

MIKE: I don't know, you know? I mean, he keeps telling us that he's not a zombie but, you know, he's a lawyer. How can I trust him?

BROOKS: Oh, well, if he's talking, he's faking. Remember that we had those bumper stickers all through Oklahoma. If he's talking, he's faking. So...

MIKE: With his tax case, do you think?

BROOKS: Oh, yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call. And if he's - maybe either way, lawyer, zombie, what's the difference really?

MIKE: I think I'm going to...

BROOKS: Yeah.

MIKE: ...take out the hacksaw.

CONAN: All right.

That's an appearance from Max Brooks back in 2006 when he appeared on this program after the publication of "World War Z." It's now a freshman read at One University in Texas. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's get some callers on the line with suggestions for some other less typical choices for freshman reads. And we'll start with Charlie. Charlie with us from Des Moines.

CHARLIE: Hi there. Love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

CHARLIE: Thanks having me on.

CONAN: Go ahead.

CHARLIE: I would highly recommend "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert Heinlein.

CONAN: Oh, that's interesting. You're a science fiction geek. Max Brooks, would you endorse that one? Or I think most people would fight over "Stranger in a Strange Land."

BROOKS: Yes.

CHARLIE: No, no. It's what he's most famous for, but "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" is about the colonization of the moon and how the moon fights back for their share of authority. And they do it in a guerilla-cell system, given the global scare about terrorist tactics. It's a really good blueprint for how to do it.

CONAN: Max, what do you think?

BROOKS: Well, I'm a huge Heinlein fan. Heinlein was - he was definitely obsessed with guerilla tactics. Yeah, Heinlein for me has always been sort of a touchstone. I'm not sure if his policies and I sort of mesh, shall we say, but I think as far as his attention to detail and his attention to his own political dogma, I think it's great. No, no, I'm a huge Heinlein fan. I think, love him or hate him, you can't ignore him.

CONAN: Charlie, thanks very much for the call.

CHARLIE: And thanks for having me on.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we go next to - this is Jamie(ph), Jamie with us from Half Moon Bay in California.

JAMIE: Hi. I originally was thinking, I don't know any books I could recommend, and then it occurred to me, "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card. And I'm guessing that your author there has read the book.

CONAN: Max?

JAMIE: It was recommended to me by a lot of teenagers.

CONAN: Max, is he right?

BROOKS: Well, that's not fair for me to say, because that was the very first book my girlfriend at the time gave me to read, and now she's my wife. So that book has a very special place in my heart and on my shelf.

JAMIE: Well, but you've - the thing that occurred to me about it is it's about kids being picked out at a very young age and being groomed for very high, you know, pressure performance. And, you know, it has a lot of kind of interesting things like that about it. So, you know, maybe not the perfect freshman read, but an adequate candidate, I thought.

CONAN: I think everybody would read it. I think that's an interesting point, Jamie. Thanks very much for the call.

JAMIE: OK. Bye.

CONAN: This is an email from Madeleine in San Jose: I'm a graduate student at the Department of Biological Sciences at San Jose State. Last year, the campus freshman read "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." I thought this was a great book, especially for the biology freshman, because it brought up a topic young biologist don't get enough - bioethics, biology - not just facts and figures and emotional and very human discipline. Rebecca Skloot was on our freshman read series last year, talking about "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

This is from Kat: I would highly recommend "The Professor and the Madman," about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary that by another good friend to the program. And Simon Winchester has been on here to discuss that.

And here's Eric from Southfield in Michigan: What about "Maus" by Art Spiegelman? The graphic nature of the medium might reach students who would be less inclined to read a traditional novel. When I was a freshman, I read Paul Auster's "City of Glass," way over my head at the time, but it made me think. "Maus" - I would think "Maus" would be a great freshman read, don't you Max?

BROOKS: I agree. I mean, I think sort of any kind of introduction into a subject that you don't know anything about is exactly the way to go. And I think the problem with a lot of education is you start so high up, you turn people off. So make it palatable and interesting. You know, start with "Maus" and end with "Showa."

CONAN: Was there a book that you read, at about that time in your life, that you would hold in that renown?

BROOKS: Yes, I would. When I was 16, the first book I ever actually purchased with my own money, in fact, and had read on my own time was "Hunt for Red October" by Tom Clancy, and it opened up a world into geopolitics, which continues to drive me to this day. And I would never have done that had I just listened to my current events class.

CONAN: The last book that Tom Clancy managed to write in under 600 pages.

BROOKS: Yeah. And I think - well, certainly one of the books that he wrote by himself. Every now and then, I see a Clancy book on the shelf and I'm about to buy it. Then I see somebody else's name down on it, and I say, no, no. Thank you very much.

CONAN: So are you working on a sequel to "Word War Z?"

BROOKS: Oh, you mean, "Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money?"

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Yes, that one.

BROOKS: Actually, no, because it's either got to grab me or doesn't. And right now, a sequel is just not in me. There's other things I want to do. And maybe if I wake up one night and say, yeah, another "World War Z," I'll do it, but I ain't doing it for more money.

CONAN: Well, Max Brooks, thanks very much for your time today, and good luck with the movie you're not working on.

BROOKS: Thank you very much. My pleasure.

CONAN: Max Brooks, the author of "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Apocalypse." He joined from Los Angeles. Tomorrow, we'll talk about the ongoing debate over corporal punishment in schools. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.