cover image Thin Skin: Essays

Thin Skin: Essays

Jenn Shapland. Pantheon, $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-31745-7

National Book Award finalist Shapland (My Autobiography of Carson McCullers) explores the porous boundary between the individual and the wider world in these exhilarating essays. After suffering a summer of severe rashes, Shapland was diagnosed with “thin skin”—she’s missing the layer of epidermis that “keeps the bad stuff out and holds moisture in,” giving her a hypersensitivity to environmental pollutants. Cleverly, she uses this diagnosis as a metaphor to meditate on the individual’s “utter physical enmeshment with every other being on the planet.” Her inquiry takes her from the sands of Los Alamos, N.Mex., where she interviews Indigenous activists from communities riven with ailments caused by radiation left over from the Manhattan Project, to the aisles of Anthropologie, where she ruminates on capitalism’s tendency to encourage a materialistic view of the world that privileges property and ownership above other types of relations. In “Strangers on a Train,” Shapland reflects on how “cultural narratives” affect individuals, describing how the fear she sometimes feels for her safety while travelling alone is the legacy of a societal tendency to view women as in need of saving: “As a white woman I am not an agent, I am biding my time until victimhood.” It’s hard not to marvel at how the author draws unexpected conclusions from a diverse array of anecdotes, illuminating the profound ways in which individuals and the world shape each other. This is a gem. (Aug.)