Lessons from Zombie Pop Culture and What Books to Pick Up During a Pandemic, Baylor Expert Shares Advice

March 27, 2020

Baylor Cultural Critic and Author of “Living with the Living Dead” Talks Books and Pop Culture During COVID-19

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By Kaitlyn Rieper, marketing specialist, Baylor Marketing and Brand Strategy

WACO, Texas (March 27, 2020) – Time at home is increasing as shelter in place orders and working from home become the norm for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this season of uncertainty, many turn to books, movies and other pieces of pop culture to pass the time.

Greg Garrett, Ph.D., professor of English at Baylor University and expert cultural critic, supports pop culture and literature as important to meaningfully escaping current fears as well as contextualizing experience and emotions.

“A great novel, movie or memoir is a gift when we need distraction, but it can also offer us the dramatic reminder that these are the things that make us truly human: love, community, compassion and faith,” Garrett said. “The world may be shifting beneath our feet, but we’re going to be fine as long as we keep the important things in view.”

In a Q&A with Garrett, he gave insight on what can be learned from zombie pandemic pop culture, touched on how literature has fit culturally into pandemic history and offered advice on books to pick up during extra free time at home.

Q: You’re the author of “Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse.” What can we learn from zombie pandemic pop culture?

A: Our most pervasive form of pandemic literature in recent years is the story of the Zombie Apocalypse, which has been told in novels, movies, games and comics. It’s been the inciting conflict of “The Walking Dead,” and the underlying threat in “Game of Thrones,” two of the most popular television series in history.

One of the attractions of zombie literature is that zombies can serve as a metaphor for lots of things at once: for pandemic, sure, but also for economic unrest, political chaos, terrorism and other things that keep us up at night. But as Max Brooks, author of the seminal zombie novel “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006), notes: however difficult our lives might be at this moment, at least the dead are not wandering the earth and trying to eat us! We can, Brooks says, close the book, turn off the TV, and at least be secure in that.

A book like “World War Z or a movie like “Sean of the Dead (2004) or “Zombieland” (2009) can soothe some of our tension since this story of a world coming off the rails is our story, yet clearly not our story.

Q: How does literature fit into cultural history events like pandemics?

A: One of the most important gifts that great stories can give us is the realization that we’re not alone in our experience, and that, in fact, our experience is not unprecedented. Anyone wanting to understand that this dark time is not in fact the darkest time should read historian Barbara Tuchman’s masterful “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” (1978), which explores the Black Death of 1348-50, a pandemic so awful it killed a third of the populations of Europe and the Middle East.

Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is a novel recalling the horror of the Black Death in London some 60 years prior to its writing. In that book, Defoe’s narrator says he writes about his choices in such detail because he believes that they might be “of moment to those who come after me.” That is, he hopes his story might be of use to future sufferers like ourselves, and it is.

Q: Literature can also provide escape from tough times. What other books should we be reading right now?

A: In the zombie spirit, you could read “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a 2009 parody by Seth Grahame-Smith of the Jane Austen novel. But if you’re simply seeking meaningful escape from our current story, you couldn’t do much better than reading (or re-reading) the actual “Pride and Prejudice” (1813), one of my favorite novels. I can’t wait to fall back into the world of the Bennets and worry about something besides viral curves and travel bans.

During the weeks we expect to be largely confined to the house, my family and I are making reading lists. Mine includes Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) and James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” (1963), both of which I plan to teach in my American lit class at Baylor this fall, and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” (1987), which will scare me and break my heart in ways that have nothing to do with this pandemic.


Greg Garrett, Ph.D., professor of English at Baylor University, is a popular theologian and cultural critic as well as the author of two dozen novels, memoir and nonfiction books including “Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse” (Oxford University Press, 2017).


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 18,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.


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