Studs Terkel is a guy who spent most of his life recording peoples’ oral histories. In 1973 he published a collection of oral histories called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. I have just finished reading this book.
It is the best book I’ve read this year. I gained more pleasure and knowledge from it than I did from my two previous best books of the year: Grapes Of Wrath and the plays of Euripides. It is the book that I’ve wanted to read for a year, but didn’t know I wanted to read.
There are 100+ oral histories in the 590 page book. Mostly, the questions are edited out, so the interviewees speak largely without interruption. Areas where the words have been elided or truncated are indicated with italics. But most of the book is unitalicized. The conceit of the book is that it’s people speaking, in their own words, about the things that people mostly don’t say.
This is hammered home by the very first interview, which is a steelworker–a guy who works in a factory making structural shapes or something–who says that his mind shuts off when he goes to work; that there’s no dignity in his job because no intelligence is required for it, and he hopes for the day when no one has to do the kind of mindless, menial labor he’s spent his life doing.
I guess I had always assumed that people eventually came to find some kind of finesse in their work. Every work has some kind of intricacy, even if it’s just about getting through the day, and I thought that every worker eventually came to master that finesse and be proud of their mastership and somehow take pleasure in doing their work.
That was not a correct assumption.
There are many people in this book who enjoy their work: a dentist, a piano tuner, a book binder, a newspaper boy, a teacher, a union organizer, a jockey, a nurse, and tons of others.
But the overwhelming tone coming out of the book is a wail of lament. It’s Mike Lefevre, the 37 year old steel-worker, saying: “It isn’t that the average working guy is dumb. He’s tired, that’s all. I picked up a book on chess one time. That thing laid in the drawer for two or three weeks, you’re too tired. During the weekends you want to take your kid out. You don’t want to sit there and your kid comes up and says, ‘Daddy can I go to the park’ and have your nose in a book. Forget it.”
And this is a guy who has what we’d call a good job nowadays. He’s a factory worker with no college who’s supporting a four person family on a single income, without government aid. It’s the kind of job that made the sixties a prosperous era and the kind of job that we are sad about losing to China.
Most of the people in this book who have that kind of job don’t think it’s great. They think it’s mindless. They think that the pace of work is crushing. They hate being lorded over by foremen and managers. A lot of them are waiting for the day when unions can slow the rate of work or lessen the workweek or when automation can reduce society’s need for drudgework.
Studs Terkel was very liberal, of course, I know that. And the book is clearly slanted to reflect his biases, but it’s interesting as a portrait of what was, in retrospect, one of the most prosperous times in America.
Even then, there were many people who were dissatisfied with what life had handed to them. As you read, you start to notice a lot of commonalities. People hated being dictated to by management. Mr. Lefevre says he’d rather work eight hours of hard labor every day than work five minutes under the eye of a foreman. They hate having their movements restricted, having their breaks dictated to them, hate having to kiss ass to get ahead. There’s a bus driver who’s driven to the edge of fury because he gets written up for having a conversation with his wife when she’s riding the bus.
And they hate their customers. Another interview right at the beginning of the book is a fourteen year old newsboy who hates the people on his route. They steal from him. He has to track them down and somehow force the paper money out of them. There’s a pharmacist who hates the teenagers who come by and rob his store blind. There’s the taxi-driver who racially profiles his clients to avoid being mugged again. There’s a yacht broker who’s disgusted by how all these really affable, high-quality people–his friends–will try to chisel him out of his commission on the sales he arranges for them. There’s a domestic who hates the housewives who won’t show her where the mop is because they want her to clean on her hands and knees.
But most of all, people hate the mindlessness of the work they’re forced to do. And most of them don’t get used to not being required or allowed to think.
There’s one quote by George Orwell that has always struck me with its monstrous injustice. In his essay “Why I Write”, Orwell says: “After the age of about thirty [most human beings] almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all–and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery”.
If this book is to be believed, then most human beings are not smothered under that drudgery. They bear the drudgery and they keep working, but they do not forget that sense that they were brought into this world for better things. Mike LeFevre wishes he could have a twenty hour week so he could really rest and read books and spend time with his kids. A fashion model wishes she’d found something thoughtful to do with her life. A 54 year old press agent wonders if his years of chasing newspaper coverage really added up to anything in the end. A washroom attendant who’s nearing retirement talks about how he wanted to be a short-story writer.
I don’t know whether the solution to this satisfaction is political or psychological. There is little commentary in the book. The first half of the book has more dissatisfied people and the second half has more satisfied people.
Some of the satisfied workers have incredibly difficult and thankless tasks, like a live-in baby nurse who’s nursed over 400 babies through the first few weeks or months or years of their lives. She slept in their rooms and took care of them around the clock and at eighty years old; she spends her whole interview reminiscing about the little babies she’s looked after. There’s a gravedigger who seems to take a deal of satisfaction in the isolation and precision of his work. There are a few entrepreneurs and executives who live to work eighty hours a week. There’s a housewife who–aside from some self esteem problems–describes her delight at being to play around all day and see how the fruits of her work directly benefit the people she loves most. She says that when a baker bakes a pie, some stranger gets to enjoy it, but when she bakes a pie; she gets to see her family enjoy it.
So that kind of makes it seem like there are satisfied people and there are dissatisfied people. There are people who’d find the good in any job and there are people who are doomed (probably through some unfortunate neurological makeup) to never being satisfied with what they have.
But then, there are political differences to. The satisfied workers tend to be self-directed, somehow. Often, they set their own schedules and priorities. Often, they’re entirely free from supervision. And, conversely, even highly paid, highly respected workers like business executives were often dissatisfied with their jobs if that job meant being ordered around by other people. Many times, they were free to select their own customers and to not work with customers who they disliked. Often, their jobs had some degree of craftsmanship. They used their skills to create some sort of finished product.
So who knows, maybe there is a political or technological solution to the kinds of complaints these people had. Maybe you should read the book and find out for yourself.
I haven’t even begun to talk about the numerous literary pleasures of this book. It’s extraordinarily interesting to see the wide varieties of diction and language. It’s fascinating to see how people will describe their routines. And none of these people are archetypes, the way I’ve portrayed them here. They’re all individuals, and many times their individuality will wash out their class- or occupation-based characteristics.
For instance, there’s a story here by a nineteen year old who was raised in a catholic orphanage and now works as a nurse’s aide. And, as you read, it’s clear that her upbringing damaged her pretty severely. She’s not quite a sociopath, but she senses there is something wrong with her sense of empathy. She keeps saying something like, “I’m trying to work it out…I’m trying to work it out…”
There’s a totally bizarre hippy named Charlie Blossom who describes–in rambling free association–how he got fired from his job at a newspaper’s copy desk for having taped-up shoes and for meditating in the middle of the floor and for being late and for leaving early and for taking three hour lunches and having waist-length hair.
So, yeah, this book was overflowing with pleasures of all kinds.