Nov 25, 2012


People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do
by Studs Terkel

I can't remember the last time it took me so long to read a book. The length alone is not the cause. This book is an oral history, a compilation of essays, so it was easy to dip in and out of it without loosing focus. It's made up of interviews, where people from all across the nation, from all walks of life and all types of occupations, discuss what they do for a living. Some are proud of their work, others feel it's a meaningless grind. Their words express sorrow, longing, frustration, hope, contentment, even on occasion irresponsibility and there was one guy who sounded downright crazy. He was very much the square peg in a round hole. Working was published in the early seventies and this one essay I'm thinking of was a young hippy-type guy talking about how he'd do things at the office that others perceived as subversive. From simply wearing his hair long and ignoring the dress code to meditating in the middle of an office floor, just sitting there would work other people up into a fit! It was very amusing to read his words but also a bit alarming- for someone who professed to be a pacifist he sure did talk about violence a lot.

Anyway, you'll find here the words of firemen, chefs, doctors, store clerks, truck drivers, family farmers, business executives, waitresses, traveling salesmen, nurses, miners and factory workers, just about anything you can imagine people doing. Mechanics. Housewives. Hotel owners. Cabdrivers. Stockbrokers. Insurance and car salesmen. Doormen, policemen, mail carriers, meter readers, barbers, even a prostitute. And more. I think my favorite was the segment about the work of a bookbinder! Very interesting. Some interviews pair the voices of fathers and sons next to each other, or of husband and wife. People who have their dream job, a position they've worked hard for. Others who don't quite know how they ended up in that occupation but are stuck with it. People new to the country and those who had been here for generations. Old people looking back at the end of a lifelong career, young people talking about change and the future. Some get into discussing unions, organization and workers rights and strikes; others discuss prejudice and how the way people treat you or perceive your job can make it feel demeaning; yet others talk about the satisfaction of physical labor, of creating a well-made product, of serving people the best way they can.

Particularly interesting was to read the book with an attention to its time frame; a lot of the older generation in it talk about how things have changed since the Depression era, or since the thirties when they were young; but their description of how things were in their now (the seventies) compared to my now (the 21st century) gave it another perspective altogether. It is a fascinating book, a lively tome full of rich, varied voices. Recommended.

rating: 4/5 ........ 589 pages, 1972


bermudaonion said...

This sounds fascinating!

Jenny said...

I've had this on my shelves for a while but it's hard to carry a book like this around now that I take subways instead of driving myself places. I loved this book Gig that has a similar structure (but closer to our "now"), so I know I'm going to enjoy this.

Jeane said...

Jenny- it is very hefty. I did not carry it many places but mostly read it at home. He's written one in the same style about the Great Depression that I'm eager to read, but not anytime soon I'm afraid!

Shelley said...

I just recently read the one he did on the Great Depression--Hard Times. It took me a while to read as well, but I could read it in bits and pieces. It really shows the diversity of experiences and different perspectives of those living through the Depression. Working sounds good, but I think I will wait a while too!