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November 15, 2007

The Best Paragraph I've Read Today

From Chris Hayes' review of Stud Terkel's new memoirs:

You just can't beat people: as a description of Terkel's guiding ethos, you just can't beat that. Through more than a dozen books of oral history on topics ranging from working life to war, race, and the great hereafter, Terkel has demonstrated an unshakeable faith in humanity in all its flaws and triumphs. It's this fascination with the human condition which gives his books their verve and pathos. With a sharp eye and a sympathetic (if no longer particularly sensitive) ear, Terkel has coaxed wisdom and insight from janitor and senator alike. And in an age of reality television, on which ordinary people are given a shred of celebrity for the price of their dignity, Terkel has always offered the opposite, a steadfast insistence on presenting his subjects with dignity, grace, and empathy. You come away from Terkel's books with more faith in humanity than you had before.

Chris isn't quite so positive on the memoir, but everyone in the country should own a copy of Terkel's masterpiece, Working.

November 15, 2007 in Books | Permalink


Terkel's masterpiece, in my view, is "Hard Times" on the Great Depression. More people need to read it.

Posted by: David in NY | Nov 15, 2007 1:06:58 PM

I read Working about 30 years ago, when I was young and fairly liberal. My memory of the book is that I really liked it at first, but it slowly palled on me and I never did finish it. The reason for my distaste was that nearly everyone (or perhaps everyone - it's been a while) in the book detested his job, thought it was dehumanizing, etc. I was convinced that Terkel either omitted the positive or steered conversations toward the negative.

Work is often drudgery, and rarely what we would prefer to do with our time. Some people hate their jobs. Most people, though, muddle through just fine with their heads held high amid the realism that work is work. But you wouldn't know that from reading Terkel's overwrought twaddle.

Posted by: ostap | Nov 15, 2007 1:24:13 PM

I was going to recommend Eight Men Out for Terkel's small but entertaining role in it, and while looking it up I found him credited in a 1953 instructional film about dating (he plays "swimming coach"). Which has got to be freakin' hilarious.

Anyway, watch Eight Men Out.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Nov 15, 2007 1:43:42 PM

I was introduced to "Working" in a sociology class about 20 years ago. As ostap notes in the post above, the subjects do seem to gripe alot about their jobs, but I didn't come away from it with the same impression that ostap did. Alot of working people will gripe about their jobs when they think they have a neutral forum to speak to, we all do the same thing ourselves in a small way. Terkel just looked for the common threads between all the subjects, whatever kind of gig they were working. I came away from the book with a newfound respect for my parents and their parents who basically worked their lives away in tough manufacturing jobs in the anti-union South and never complained to us kids about how hard it really was. For a time I actually felt quite embarrassed that I had sheilded myself for so long from really seeing the very obvious signs of the toll that such hard work had on my parents - I had to read a friggin book in a sociology class to wake up and notice.

Posted by: chowchowchow | Nov 15, 2007 2:07:24 PM

"the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation..." but ostap just "knows" that Most people...muddle through just fine with their heads held high amid the realism that work is work..." I recommend ostap read some other studies of work and life and discover that while most people "muddle through" a great many are quite unhappy about a wide variety of things and are more than happy, when someone asks them about their actual experiences, to unload those issues. You might try Lillian Rubin's "Worlds of Pain" in which she interviews 40 working class families in california during the 70's. Or Barbara Ehrenreich's "nickled and dimed" or The organization Man, or really any study of modern american anomie and anxiety. People are absolutely "muddling through" but that doesn't mean they don't have some pretty strong feelings of anger and helplessness over their poverty and the meaninglessness either of their work lives or their family lives when they are unable to work. Just because the message doesn't redound with the counter message that life is the best in the best of all possible worlds doesn't make it false. Terkel's subjects are simply testifying to life the way they see it--even if it made the youthful ostap uncomfortable to realize it.


Posted by: aimai | Nov 15, 2007 2:23:31 PM

If he managed to get some wisdom from a Senator he must indeed be a genius.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Nov 15, 2007 2:29:39 PM

On the other hand, a friend of mine quotes her Irish uncle: "People are worse than anyone."

Posted by: DonBoy | Nov 15, 2007 4:41:37 PM

It is so MUCH better to write about the American working class...

...than to actually live among them.

Kudos to Terkel for successfully learning to read, write, and talk and distance himself from these bozos.


God forbid that these assholes should ever rise up and take over the "gummint"...

It's bad enough that some of them voted for Bush, and worse yet that more of them are preparing to vote for Giuliani...

You can read Studs from beginning to end and understand why we are where we are?

Posted by: wobbly | Nov 15, 2007 6:48:53 PM

wobbly: The true, rare, elite, and honest progressive voice untethered.

Posted by: tao9 | Nov 15, 2007 9:30:24 PM

As someone who has long harbored an affection for the old shell-of-the-old wobblies, I nevertheless find the content of (cough) >>wobbly<<'s post to be substantially more offensive than its author's pseudonym.

Though the latter ranks a close second.

There's a young Dos Passos on the phone.

Posted by: wcw | Nov 15, 2007 10:58:18 PM

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