Musings From A Bookmammal

O is for ORAL HISTORY–The A-Z Challenge/Day 15


OWelcome to Day #15 of the April A to Z Challenge, where participants are challenged to create a post every day (except Sundays) corresponding to the appropriate letter of the alphabet. If you’d like to learn more, hit the badge on my sidebar.

I’ll be posting about bookish topics each day of the challenge. Here’s today’s post about my thoughts about the oral history genre:


I really enjoy reading many types of nonfiction (see yesterday’s post!), and one of my favorite nonfiction genres is the oral history. The simplest definition of oral history isthe collection and study of historical information using sound recordings of interviews with people having personal knowledge of past events”. I find it incredibly fascinating to read about the same event, place, or time period from the points of view and through the transcriptions of the actual voices of many different people—and that’s what a good oral history does for the reader.

terkelStuds Terkel is widely believed to be the father of the modern oral history genre. A New Yorker by birth, he came to Chicago as a young man and made the city his home. He authored over a dozen oral histories over the years that covered diverse topics such as race, the Great Depression, spirituality, war, and many others. He had the incredible gift of being able to ask the right questions at the right time and to create a safe environment for his subjects to open up and share their deepest thoughts. I was lucky enough to hear him speak at an author event held when he was in his nineties—and although his body and his hearing were failing him, his mind was as nimble as a man at a quarter of his age. Terkel was truly a Chicago icon, and when he died a few years ago it was the end of the era of a certain type of writer. I have an entire shelf on one of my bookcases that’s devoted to his books.

Here are a few of my favorite oral histories:


workingWorking by Studs Terkel

I first read parts of Working when I was in junior high and picked up my dad’s copy. The subtitle of the book tells it all—“People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About Doing It”. Terkel interviewed over 100 people about their jobs—farmers, teachers, factory workers, athletes, salesmen, and many more. The result is a portrait of the people who make up everyday America, and who make America work. It also brings home the theme that self worth is so often tied to how we feel about how we earn our living. Written in 1972, the book is obviously a bit dated—many of the jobs discussed have changed drastically or no longer exist. But the spirit of the people who share their stories still rings true. If you’ve never read any oral histories by Terkel, start with this one–it’s still in print and readily available!

gigGig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe, and Sabin Streeter

The authors of this oral history openly admit their admiration of Studs Terkel and their hopes that this book is the modern day imitation of Working. Written about 30 years after Terkel’s book, Gig includes people sharing their experiences in more modern professions, including video game designer, corporate headhunter, and crime scene cleaner. I think this would be a great pick for reluctant readers in high school—the sections are brief yet very engaging–as well as for anyone who enjoys the oral history format.


hospitalHospital: The Hidden Lives of a Medical Center Staff by Michael Medved

This book is out of print, but if you’re at all interested in the inner workings of the medical profession it’s definitely worth looking for. Medved interviewed dozens of employees at one unnamed medical center—from the top surgeons to the cleaning staff—and the result is an intriguing look at the day-to-day life inside a busy hospital. One of the things I loved about this book was reading the impressions and opinions of different staff members about each other. This is a great “fly on the wall” read!

snlLive From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

I started watching Saturday Night Live back in the Jim Belushi/Dan Ackroyd/Bill Murray days. This is a truly riveting oral history of that groundbreaking show as told by the cast members, writers, producers, hosts, musical guests, and more. If you’re a SNL fan, or if you enjoy reading about TV and the entertainment industry, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of this book!



mtvI Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum

I’m also old enough to remember when MTV actually played music videos 24 hours a day. I can still recall gathering in the TV lounge of my college dorm to watch the premier of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video—we’d never seen anything like it before! This oral history traces the first decade of MTV and features transcripts of interviews with nearly 400 musical artists, directors, TV and music executives, and MTV VJs. Reading this book completely took me back to the 80s!


How about you? Have you read any oral histories? Do you enjoy this format? Please share!

Author: bookmammal

I love books, reading, writing, cooking, eating, reading while eating, and sharing thoughts about all of the above–plus a bit more! I usually post about topics relating to books and literacy during the week, and then participate in a variety of non-bookish memes on the weekend. Please feel free to join in! Some random things about me– –I have multiple bookshelves in every room of my home except the bathroom. They’re all filled to bursting. They help to make my house my home. –I have two cats who I love dearly, but who I definitely do NOT dress in human clothing. Ever. –I’ve never had a cavity. –I make a mean spaghetti sauce. –I’m a newcomer to yoga and I love it. –My day is not complete without a little chocolate.

6 thoughts on “O is for ORAL HISTORY–The A-Z Challenge/Day 15

  1. There’s something fascinating about learning about an historical event from someone who lived through it. It makes it come alive.

  2. Hi there – I like to read historical fiction and then look up some of the facets of the story to see if they relate correctly to history. I actually don’t read oral history, but it seems interesting. I like your post. 🙂

    • Thank you!
      When I read historical fiction that’s especially interesting, I’ll often find a nonfiction book about the same time period and read that book next.

  3. What a fascinating subject. I have come across a few Oral History recordings to do with the village where my ancestors came from and that was wonderful to listen to. As you know I like fairly recent history and to have ‘real’ people’s stories is an excellent way of capturing a range of feelings about events rather than the one the history books choose to use…

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