I’m not really into zombies. I generally confine my summer reads to mildly-embarrassing vampire fiction or binge-reading Game of Thrones books. I did not choose World War Z to fill the guilty pleasure niche as my summer came to a close. What attracted me to World War Z was the oral history angle. I have always loved oral histories and was curious to see how the author used that framework to tell a sci-fi story. I was not disappointed by what I found. Author Max Brooks did an amazing job adapting his subject matter to have the feel of a real collection of oral histories. In his credits at the end, Brooks cited the late, great oral historian Studs Terkel as one of his main influences. Those who are familiar with Terkel’s work can see why after a couple of chapters; the voice of Studs is continually present.
I would highly recommend this title to the average reader – not strictly those who are into sci-fi, zombies, gore, dystopian novels, or anything else you would assume that a book about zombies might represent (though readers looking for all the above will get hooked on this book just as quickly). By necessity there are some gruesome descriptions, but that’s not what dominates the stories told by the author. World War Z, above all, gives a human voice to a terrible (though fictitious) period of human history.
Once you’ve had the chance to check out a fictional oral history collection, you may want to branch out into the real thing. Oral histories are collected to tell a range of different stories about historic events, cultural phenomena, or just to record what life was like during a specific time period. The Everett Public Library has a lot of great oral histories in its collections – here are some voices from a few:
One of the boys in the show, Tony, said, ‘Don’t worry. All my uncles are stagehands and the rest of ‘em are bootleggers. Pick out a night club you want to work, we’ll work’. I looked at these freaks, with these little postage-stamp stages… Up to this time, the most sexy thing I’d ever done is Scheherazade in the ballet. I thought a girl who went on stage without stockings was a hussy (laughs). -Sally Rand, Dancer. Excerpt from Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, by Studs Terkel.
Punk rock saved a lot of people’s sanity, emboldened the timid and gave countless youth all over the world a voice. – Henry Rollins from the forward of Punk Rock: an Oral History, by John Robb
D-Day was not one day, but a composite of many days, experienced by each of those individuals who played a part on the Allied side – from the 120,000 men who landed during the initial action to the millions of personnel who supported them. […] The record, as offered in this volume, does indeed show that they didn’t just do their job ‘well’ – they were magnificent. – prologue to Voices of Valor: D-Day: June 6, 1944, by Douglas Brinkley and Ronald J. Drez
But I love him! I love him! He’s sleeping, and I’m whispering: ‘I love you.’ Carrying his sanitary tray, ‘I love you.’ I remembered how we used to live at home. He only fell asleep at night after he’d taken my hand. That was a habit of his – to hold my hand while he slept. All night. So in the hospital I take his hand and don’t let go. – Lyudmilla Ignatenko – widow of a first responder to the Chernobyl disaster. Excerpt from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich
I walked down the street, not knowing where to go, thinking that everybody I’d been with had died. I barely knew who I was, I was dizzy and disoriented, my speech was slurred. Looking back, it makes perfect sense: I’d been hit twice on the head, once in the office and once on the street. The wall of my office had knocked me on my right temple… All I wanted to do was get uptown and find my wife. I knew where she worked and I said to myself, I don’t care if I have to walk all the way, I’ll get there eventually, just go. So I started walking. – Tom Haddad, 31, escaped from the 89th floor of Tower I. Excerpt from Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11 ,by Damon DiMarco
We had a policy in place that was ridiculous. I had served for so many years with so many people that I knew were gay and were outstanding soldiers. Officers, enlisted-they ran the gamut. I mean, yes, there were some that I wasn’t fond of and would never want to be friends with, but in general most of the gays and lesbians that I served with in the military did a good job, and I would have been proud to call them a friend at any time. So I did want to do something to change the policy. Brenda Vosbein, WAC Retired. – excerpt from Ask and Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out, by Steve Estes
“We received support from the most unusual places, like The Times. I hope they live forever. They saved my neck. A year making mailbags in prison was not on my itinerary [laughs]. -Keith Richards. Excerpt from The Rolling Stones: An Oral History, by Alan Lysaght
Explore these other oral history titles for even more first-hand accounts of culture, history, and events that changed the world:
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, By Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey, by Studs Terkel
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, by Mark Yarm
The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries, by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton
Why? Because we Still Like You: an Oral History of the Mickey Mouse Club, by Jennifer Armstrong
Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans, by Alison Owings
Nā Kua’āina: Living Hawaiian Culture, by Davianna Pōmaika’i McGregor
Lost Voices from the Titanic: The Definitive Oral History , by Nick Barratt
48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust: An Oral History, by Mitchell G. Bard, Ph.D.
Reflections of Pearl Harbor: An Oral History of December 7, 1941, by K.D. Richardson
Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South , edited by William H. Chafe, Raymond Gavins, and Robert Rodgers Korstad
What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany: An Oral History, by Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband
River Pigs &Cayuses: Oral Histories from the Pacific Northwest, by Ron Strickland
Whistlepunks &Geoducks: Oral Histories of the Pacific Northwest, edited by Ron Strickland
Everett Voices, by David Dilgard of the Everett Public Library
Upriver Voices: Tales of Skykomish, by Nancy Cleveland and Anne Sektor