I suppose there is something appropriate about my finishing Studs Terkel’s Working on the last day of the school year when I usually spend my day getting ready to not work for an eight-week stretch. Of course, this could be total coincidence and the bigger factor in my finishing the book is that it’s due back at the library, but let’s go with the synchronicity I established in that first sentence.
I first learned who Terkel was via a late-1990s travelogue/memoir called Anthem, where he was a number of people interviewed by the book’s two authors, Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn. Years later, his name would come up in an interview I read with Max Brooks, who said that Terkel’s The Good War was an inspiration for World War Z. Oral histories have become almost a cliche form of reporting and storytelling at this point, but when done well, they wind up being richer than a glorified interview piece (which is what a number of the shorter ones, in magazines, really are). Terkel was an expert at this particular genre, and I want to say pioneered it or at least perfected it over his many years of being a radio host and journalist.
First published in 1974 Working, which is subtitled “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” is an enormous tome (589 pages of small, cramped type) wherein Terkel talks to a cross-section of Americans, grouping the interviews thematically and by purpose. The people he talks to are from as many professions or jobs one can think of, and Terkel lets his subjects speak as long and as much as they want to, which lends itself to making this a “characterization” of America, as well as a “time capsule” of sorts. Most of the interviews were conducted a year or two before the book’s publication, so there’s a lot of mention of the Vietnam War (which we would leave behind in ’73) and very little to no mention of Watergate or any of the other scandals surrounding the Nixon administration. If anything, it’s a snapshot of America immediately following The Sixties, a moment in time where the counterculture was at a crossroads after the Summer of Love, 1968, Woodstock, Altamont, and whatever other important events that VH-1 used to beat us all over the head with via rockumentaries.
But while there are some people who bring up the inter-generational conflicts of the time, whether it’s through someone’s ranting about the unfairness of our economic system or someone else complaining about long hair, the majority of the book is simply spent with people describing what they do and getting into whether or not they like doing it. Some are fine with it and see what they do as just a way to pay the bills or make money so they can enjoy their off-time. Some see what they’re doing as a stepping stone to a higher place. Some regret not finishing high school or college or not taking an opportunity they had. And some are wholly discontent and have realized that their job will probably kill them. There’s no common viewpoint of working or work; it is presented for what it is.
Which is why I find the common thread of Terkel’s book to be not only appealing but still relevant. Work is often a topic of conversation because like it or not, in the adult world, it’s one of the few things that many of us have in common. Not only that, we often can relate to one another’s stories about work even if we’re not in the same professions. Working shows those common threads of the day in and day out of the job, and how attitudes and ethics have not changed particularly much since the generation that Terkel is interviewing made up the bulk of the workforce.
And yet, I couldn’t help but spend time thinking about the politics of that time and the politics of our time; furthermore, my mind wandered a few times toward what someone else today would think of this book. Would they consider it outdated? Would they consider it problematic because there a number of people who talk about members of other races using ethnic slurs? Would they consider the generation being interviewed primitive because of their lack of the Internet (don’t give me that look … there are plenty of people who act as if they are somehow smarter than people 50 years ago because they have access to Twitter)? Would they consider the generation being interviewed naïve because of our current political crises? In other words, how much has the discourse we have around our daily lives held steady since the early 1970s and how much has it been changed or perhaps warped by the shifts and innovations in media and technology?
While reading the book, I found myself wondering about a number of the people interviewed and what happened to them afterward, something I often find myself doing after a really good documentary (Down and Out in America is a great example of this–I Googled a number of the interview subjects because I genuinely cared about what happened to them after the camera went away). I figure that in the nearly fifty years since Working was published, many have shifted into comfortable retirement or have passed on. So that probably begs the question: what is going to happen to us? As I sit here on my deck and contemplate all of this on an unseasonably cool June morning, I wonder if our recent experiences in the COVID pandemic and the struggle so many face in returning to what was perceived as “normal” work would make for conversations and stories just as fascinating as those Terkel listens to, even if they are mostly about the mundane.
Read or Skip? (it was a library book, so nothing to “keep” here)