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.
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."
When I was a kid, I assumed that in the future things would get better and better until we were all driving flying cars and playing badminton with space aliens on top of 500-story buildings. Frankly, I kind of counted on this happening. But now I don't assume that we'll just keep going up anymore.
I think there's probably a point to which civilization will evolve, and then all the gas and water will run out and we'll spend the rest of eternity trying to get back to the awesome times when we had, you know, food to eat. I really hope I'm not alive when that turning point arrives, because it will be bad.
More than 5,000 of you nominated. More than 60,000 of you voted. And now the results are in. The winners of NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy survey are an intriguing mix of classic and contemporary titles. Over on NPR's pop culture blog, Monkey See, you can find one fan's thoughts on how the list shaped up, get our experts' take, and have the chance to share your own.
A quick word about what's here, and what's not: Our panel of experts reviewed hundreds of the most popular nominations and tossed out those that didn't fit the survey's criteria (after — we assure you — much passionate, thoughtful, gleefully nerdy discussion). You'll notice there are no young adult or horror books on this list, but sit tight, dear reader, we're saving those genres for summers yet to come.
So, at last, here are your favorite science-fiction and fantasy novels. (And a printable version, to take with you to the bookstore.)
As Halloween approaches, new generations of literary zombies are rising from the dead and shambling towards the bookshelves — ready to entertain (and frighten) readers of all ages.
Take Nathan Abercrombie, the 10-year-old protagonist of David Lubar's novel My Rotten Life. Nathan is an elementary-school loser who accidentally morphs into a zombie. Suddenly, he's able to turn the weaknesses of death into strengths for life:
"He can't breathe, [so] he no longer has to carry an inhaler. He can't sleep, [but instead] he can play video games," says Lubar.
Lubar's book is meant for an elementary-school audience, but slightly older young adults might find E. Van Lowe's Never Slow Dance With a Zombie more appealing. In Van Lowe's book, narrator Margot Jean Johnson arrives expecting another boring day as the unpopular girl in high school, only to have her world turned upside down:
I could hardly believe my eyes. The place was crawling with zombies. Zombies! It was a ridiculous thing to imagine, like something out of a horror flick, and yet it seemed to be true ... it was then I noticed the zombies moving sluggishly through the halls were still among their normal circle of friends. Popular zombies, goth zombies, nerd zombies, all roaming in their close-knit groups. 'They're still hanging in their cliques,' I said.
Van Lowe also uses his story to talk about important issue among teen girls, like body image: "You're juxtaposing Margo's body image issues with these rotting corpses walking through the school. That's kind of cool," he says.
Adults looking for a tale of love and finding one's purpose in the world can pick up Scott Browne's Breathers. It's the story of Andy Warner, a young man who dies in a car accident, then comes back to life in a world where the undead are a persecuted minority.
"The challenge for me doing this was writing a book about a zombie where he was empathetic and sympathetic and you would like him even if he started to do what zombies typically do in Hollywood movies — consume human flesh," says Browne. "But instead of finding it appalling, I wanted to make it so that you liked him enough so that you would root for him."
While Scott Browne wants you identify with his undead hero, Max Brooks takes a more traditional view of zombies in his novel World War Z. Brooks explores a world in which people and nations have battled relentless flesh-eating zombies throughout history. But though he takes humanity to the brink of extinction, his work is oddly positive.
"I do give it an uplifting message," says Brooks. "I think that the world is as safe as we make it. Every day is a fight. You got to get up and you've got to feel optimistic. So, yeah, the book is inspirational."
And if the invasion of the bookshelves isn't enough to satisfy everyone's appetite for the undead, both Breathers and World War Z are currently being developed as feature films.
You can print these titles, along with all our other year-end picks, using this master list.
We need extra nourishment in the winter season. To me, that means feeding the body and feeding the mind. I have a recommendation that combines the two: Life is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days. Award-winning fiction writer James Salter and his playwright wife, Kay Salter, offer a year's worth of deliciously textured day-by-day entries about preparation, tasting, culinary history and personal history.
For some good after-dinner reading: Thomas Pynchon's new 1,000-page novel, Against the Day, should last several evenings. Set between 1893 and the aftermath of World War I, the story features revenge plot and dozens of subplots filled with charming characters, such as ardent boy sleuths in air balloons and dogs that read Henry James.
Against the Day is so long and dense that it will take even the most devoted Pynchon fan a week or two to read, and then more time to reread and ponder. Pynchon is a modernist — so he may not be for everyone on your list. But for those folks who want to make that extra effort to spend time in an alternative world of humor and wild imagination, he's your best bet.
Tucker Malarkey's Resurrection is a novel perfect for the holidays. This thinking-person's Da Vinci Code has a wonderful heroine who discovers her late father's work with the Nag Hammadi Gospels in post-World War II Egypt.
In his nonfiction account Blood and Thunder, Hampton Sides details the opening of the American West during the mid-19th century. It's a fascinating history filled with mountain men, charismatic Navajo warriors, American presidents and the legendary scout Kit Carson.
On the subject of this great American land: Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney, is a feast of definitions of geographical terms by some of America's best writers. It makes a splendid gift for the nature reader, the map lover and anyone who just flat-out loves where we live.
For some comic relief, refer to Max Brooks' World War Z, a zombie novel. The audio-book version of this story, which imagines our world attacked by the living dead, will prove to be a great antidote for long commutes — if you dare to go on the road.
While Brooks' zombie tale is not one for kids, the Rabbit Ears Treasury of... series most certainly is. It's all your favorite fairy tales, tall tales and fables, told by voices you might recognize: Cher reading "The Ugly Duckling," Glenn Close reading "The Emperor and the Nightingale," Denzel Washington telling the West Indian tale "Anansi" and Nicolas Cage reading "Davy Crockett."
Finally, a fine gift for friends and family who love poetry: American Religious Poems, a Library of America anthology by Harold Bloom. It's 700 pages of great poems on faith and hope and charity and holidays, by many of our greatest poets.
O, illuminated night! I wish you many of them, with plenty of light to read by, through the winter.