On the Shelf: Jill Sisson Quinn

As an English teacher, I do a lot of reading (and re-reading) of the typical high school fare: research paper drafts and personal narratives, Julius Caesar, To Kill a Mockingbird. Our seniors graduate two weeks before school ends, so when I found myself with one junior in a senior class, I devised a plan to get us both out of the mold. For the last two weeks of school we would have a “book club.” This is a kid who recently wrote a very convincing paper proving through quantum physics that free will does not exist. I wanted to give him one of those non-required texts I had found so eye-opening at that age: Robert Pirsig’s Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. Or something I still find mind-blowing every time I read it, like anything by Milan Kundera, especially The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Or perhaps, I thought, we could tackle some Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. But I decided to make two rules: he must pick the book and it must be something neither of us has read.

“I want to read World War Z by Max Brooks,” he said. So there you have it. I am currently a third of the way through a documentary-style collection of first-person accounts of the zombie apocalypse, sprinkled with a little social and political satire. I’m looking forward to our first discussion and to the essay question based on the book that I’ll need to come up with for his “final.” (Any suggestions? Submit them in the comments below!)

To counter the blood and gore of World War Z, I am also reading David Gessner’s Return of the Osprey, a pleasant record of the comeback of ospreys at his Cape Cod home, post-DDT. I find this book very different from what I’ve read (and loved) of Gessner so far: I’m on page forty-four and I don’t think I’ve encountered any profanity.

Also this spring, somewhat in preparation for seeing the extremely popular musical Book of Mormon in Chicago, the religious satire by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, I read Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. Krakauer chronicles the murder of a woman and her baby by her Mormon fundamentalist brothers-in-law. Before reading his book, I had no idea Mormonism had played such an important part in American history. I love Krakauer’s work. He is a master of structure and meticulous detail, and unlike many contemporary narrative nonfiction writers, includes a bit of himself in the telling of other people’s stories—either through an aberrant chapter or a lengthy epilogue—that doesn’t take away but makes me feel like I am reading something written by a human rather than transcribed from a digital recorder.

I’ve also just finished rereading The Lonely Other by Diana Hume George, a collection of travel essays that amounts to much more: a look at love, pornography, misogyny, America’s national parks, Buddhism, Anne Sexton’s poetry, and Thomas Merton’s philosophy.

And the essay I’ve talked about the most from the The Best American Essays 2012 is Marcia Angell’s “The Crazy State of Psychiatry”, in which she argues against the over-diagnosis of mental illness and overuse of psychoactive drugs as treatment, especially in children—something I worry about in the students I teach. Paired with Lauren Slater’s “Killing My Body to Save My Mind” (in the same collection) it provides a very vivid look at mental illness and its treatment.

Finally, I’ve been smitten with Allison Fairbrother’s The Public Trust Project, a nonprofit organization that reports misrepresentations of science by corporations and the government. Sometimes, as a public school teacher, I find I must too carefully choose my words when talking about climate change or evolution, because of their media portrayal as controversial political topics rather than science. In On Human Nature, E.O. Wilson wrote that science (evolution in particular) has the potential to be the grounding “myth” of our time—by myth he does not mean untruth, but rather a grand and guiding narrative. If we can’t get true science to the public, we may find ourselves not only without science, but without “religion,” too. So I thank Allison, and others like her, for paving the way to a scientifically literate public.

Jill Sisson Quinn, author of Deranged: Finding a Sense of Place in the Landscape and in the Lifespan, recently won the John Burroughs Essay Award. She lives in Wisconsin. Her essay “Metamorphic” appears in the May/June 2013 issue of Orion.


  1. Because my Chicago son wanted his books autographed, I saw Max Brooks speak when the book came out. I see there are several recordings on YouTube — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81VRiZLj47g — and you would both enjoy it. I was interested that he was cool without ridiculing his audience, funny without being flip and that his advice came down to get in shape, drink lots of water, make sure you have Vitamin C. “Your kitana is not ‘battle-ready’ — it’s RenFair ready.” The contrast between the tone of the book and the tone of his presentation might suggest an essay question — or his pedigree (Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.)

  2. Hi Susan–thank you! This helps a lot!

  3. Consider this another, “not your standard fare suggestion.” I’m currently about halfway through Philipp Meyer’s latest book, “The Son.” Beyond the excellent narrative and graphic violence at times, Meyer, like Krakauer, is authentic with details of the American west in the 19th century. Specifically, his details of the plant and animal life that existed at the time are wonderful. Not a quick read, but unexpectedly interesting from an environmental standpoint.

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