Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Working — People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do — Studs Terkel — A Book Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 19, 2008

Systematic documenting of “Oral History” is a relatively new concept and has become widely popular in the early twentieth century. Oral historians attempt to capture views of multiple people who have witnessed an event or an era and try to figure out some common themes. The predominant recording method is mostly free flow interviewing. It appears that questions are used mostly as props or guides to get the maximum from the interviewee. What is interesting about these interviews is that they provide a reader with raw, unanalysed material and one gets to see a lot of authentic voices, feelings and interpretations of a subject on hand. This diversity of thought about the same subject makes oral histories as interesting as academic or interpreted histories

I am a conservative reader in the sense that I do not display courage in picking up books/authors on my own. Most of my reads have been introduced by some one else. I can never pick up an author whose name I have not heard before. If my memory serves me right the only author I picked up on my own was Martin Amis and it was an effort. I have no complaints about this situation of mine for I do believe in received wisdom. When it comes to reading I prefer the road well travelled

Quite sometime back a good friend of mine suggested that I read the books of a writer called Studs Terkel. During the time of his suggestion I was on an year long assignment at Frankfurt and I was more than delighted to find his books in Frankfurt Central Library. Actually, more than delighted I was impressed, surprised and frustrated — all almost at the same time. Delighted that I had some unusual books on hand to read, impressed that in the small but well stacked section on English literature of the library that Terkel has managed to make place for himself, surprised because I least expected to get his books and frustrated that upon my return to India, I will never have access to the treasue trove that was in the library. The first behavioural signs of an imagined famine I am told is hoarding. It happened with me too. I checked for the inventory of Terkel’s titles in the library and picked up both the books that were available on the shelves for reading. These books were — “The Good War – An oral history of WW II” and “Division Street: America“. Nothing prepared me to deal with a genre like this. Both were fabulous and absorbing reads. After returning to India I happened to chance on another book of Terkel viz.  “Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith“. This book is about a cross section of people talking about their views/notions on life, death and faith. I had this supercilious notion that topics like Life, Death and Faith are too vague for ordinary people till I read this book. The views that people articulate are no less sophisticated and well considered than some of the great philosophers we get to read and hear. My affair with Terkel’s books continues and to my collection now, I have added some of his gems like “And They All Sang (A book on the music scene in America. A one liner definition of blues music remains etched in my mind forever. “What’s blues music? It’s nuthin… It’s a good man feelin bad“),”Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression” and his crowning jewel “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”

I came to gather that Terkel shot into real limelight after he published “Working“. The concept behind the book is very simple i.e. make a cross section of people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. The cross section involves labourers, farmers, farm hands, social workers, a waitress, a hooker, sports people, people associated with music, priests, policemen, firemen, security guards, housewives and many more. The outcome of this effort like all his other publications is truly heart warming. Terkel makes people express their innermost feelings about work and their outlook to work. I am not an academic nor am I well versed in the academic theories behind various genres of books and writers. I am an ordinary reader looking for some education and enjoyment from the stuff I read. Going by these measures I would rate “Working” as one of the most wonderful books I have come across so far

So what is the appealing aspect of “Working“? I feel there are many. First and foremost is the authenticity of the voices. Terkel makes people talk freely and without any inhibitions. The feelings and emotions that get poured are truly genuine and humbling. I have had close to 17 years work life and if I had the discipline of keeping a record of what I felt about work through my career, I am sure I could easily match and identify with a majority of views that people have expressed in this book. More than that if only I had come across these early in my life I would surely have internlaised some of them for my own good. This life educative dimension is the one that was very appealing to me.

Secondly, one gets to see uncommon wisdom from so called “common people”. Some of the thoughts expressed by people are so profound and so pregnant with meaning that one stops in ones tracks while reading through the book. And all that they are saying is also being practiced simultaneously. The positive fallout of this will be that here on I will be looking at people in other professions in a different way. I am sure from indifference I will move to tinge of respect and the silent recognition that each one has her own rightful place under the sun

Thirdly one gets to see a fine balance. A balance between the compulsions of making a living through work and the need to live life on ones own terms. It is tough balance and is a tussle that is universal to nearly all working men and women. It is this universality that I as a reader could identify with all through my reading

Fourthly, Terkel makes a nation talk. The breadth of society that he meets is an accurate representation of America itself. Making such a bubbling cauldron speak in a calm, controlled and meaningful way is a rare skill which is only possible for a person of Terkel’s caliber. Real human beings are the core of his book and the human touch that makes a great read is all pervading

Lastly, the most important aspect has been the documenting of changing views on work itself – a wonderful reflection of a society that has seen enormous transformation on account of entrepreneurship, industrial growth and automation driven by technology. All in all “Working” has been a wonderful read and has been very different from any of the books I have read before

On a different note Shashi Tharoor likened India to a fully served thaali. I think that India too would make a wonderful material for oral histories. I am not sure if there have been focused attempts to capture oral histories in our context. If yes, I would like to know some sources that I can explore and I am sure it would be an interesting and enriching experience…. 


Afterword: Mr.Terkel passed away on Oct 31, 2008. BBC 4 ran a 30 minute profile on Studs Terkel on Nov 18, 2008. It was a rapturous experience watching this man in action. There was an air of well read, respected, loved, mischievous and wise grandfather about him

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