Musings From A Bookmammal



NF November 2014Welcome to week #2 of NONFICTION NOVEMBER—the second annual celebration of all things nonfiction! I participated last year and had so much fun meeting new bloggers and adding great nonfiction titles to my TBR list! If you’re into reading nonfiction and want to join in the fun, just click on the graphic to visit this week’s  linkup. A new prompt and linkup will be posted every Monday throughout November. Be prepared, though—your TBR list will explode with great NF books!

This week, participants are invited to create  a nonfiction reading list covering any topic. It’s a chance to be an expert on the nonfiction topic of your own choosing! Or, you can put out an inquiry to the  bloggers who are participating and ask for suggestions for books on any nonfiction subject. This was by far my favorite week of last year’s Nonfiction November!


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 transcriptions of the actual voices of many different people—and that’s what a good oral history does for the reader.

Studs 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–by Terkel and by other authors:


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.


good war“The Good War:” An Oral History Of World War II by Studs Terkel

Another favorite by Studs Terkel, this Pulitzer Prize winning book captures the voices of everyday people whose lives were affected the “the war to end all wars”—both on the front lines and at home. Most of the people interviewed for this book were Americans, but there are Japanese, German, and Russian voices represented as well. If you enjoy reading historical fiction set during this time period, this would be a great contrast!




Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now—As Told By Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long For It by Craig Taylor

The author of this fascinating book spent five years talking with an incredible diverse cross-section of Londoners and paints a vivid picture of modern London. I’ve never been to London, but this book made me feel as if I were there–experiencing both the negatives and the positives of this historic city.


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. I’ve heard that this book has been recently re=released with updated interviews, but I haven’t read that version yet. 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!


i want my 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–and please visit the current November Nonfiction linkup (just click on the graphic at the top of this post) for more great nonfiction suggestions!

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.

27 thoughts on “NONFICTION NOVEMBER–WEEK 2: Oral Histories

  1. Ooh, I would love to read that book on MTV!

  2. Very interesting post! I haven’t read any oral histories recently . . . but back in the 1990s, when I was in grad school in history, I conducted some interviews of people who’d been involved in the civil rights movement, and I read a number of other oral histories. First-hand accounts are, of course, amazing sources for historians. The WPA in the 1930s conducted interviews with former slaves–they are some of the most important sources we have about what life was like for slaves.

    Did you know there is a musical version of Terkel’s Working? Our local high school performed it a few years ago!

    • I know that there’s a musical but I’ve never seen it. I believe there was also a play produced based on his oral history called Race.
      That must have been such a fascinating project for you to be involved in!

  3. Good to see Studs Terkel getting some recognition in the blogosphere! He visited my college way back n the ’80s – a dynamic and inspiring speaker!

    • I’ve been a Studs Terkel fan for years and feel very fortunate that I was able to hear him speak in a very small venue before he passed. I miss his writing voice tremendously.

  4. The Londoners book sounds intriguing. I wish I could go to London, but the book might be the next best thing.

  5. I’ve never read an oral history, but they sound wonderful! A big difference between fiction and nonfiction is that the former has so much dialogue while the latter usually doesn’t, so this particular genre definitely makes me look at nonfiction in a new way. Gig looks like a fun book, and I’m interested in hearing about various occupations from many different voices. Thanks for the recommendations! 🙂

    • It really is a very unique genre. GIG sounds like it would be a great fit for you! And don’t discount WORKING just because it was written so long ago–I think it still stands up today.

      • You read my mind about my thoughts of Working, haha! I’ll definitely give it a try if I like Gig, but I assumed that I would be able to relate more to the voices in Gig. 🙂

  6. I’m sure I must have read some oral histories as past sociology student but I honestly don’t remember! the Londoners book sounds fascinating, primarily because I am an ex – Londoner 🙂 Onto the wishlist it goes!

  7. I’m not sure I’ve read any oral histories–at least not compilations like this. I’m definitely intrigued by the concept and a couple of these tiles–actually I might have Working on my shelf from my husband’s college years.

    • Working was written about 40 years ago, but I think it still stands up today. Although jobs may have changed, the way we think about what we do and how we do it is still relevant after all these years.

  8. I love oral histories! Live from New York was great! As was These Guys Have All the Fun (about the founding of ESPN) and The Chris Farley Show (about his life). Great topic! And – the two job books sounds fascinating!

    • Thanks for the reminder–I remember hearing about the ESPN book but never read it. I love reading about sports so that one is a perfect fit for me! Onto the TBR list it goes . . .

  9. I have never sought out an oral history, but after your post here I’m intrigued. Thinking back I guess I’ve read a couple, but they’ve been really short and I never thought of them as something special. I am going to poke around and see what oral histories there are in some of the subject areas I like to read about. Could be some gems! Thank you for putting this list together. Have a good month!

  10. I took a course when I was studying in Ireland about Oral Traditional History. It was fascinating!

  11. I’m fascinated by Oral History because you get a far richer picture of history from multiple viewpoints. The book on London has caught my eye as has the one on World War II. A fantastic selection 🙂

  12. I’m not entirely sure what oral history means, but I read (and liked) a book recently that is probably an oral history: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen.

    Thanks for this list: I have to find the SNL book!

  13. This list sounds so good! I’ve been meaning to read Working for a long time now, and Live From New York sounds great. I haven’t watched a lot of SNL, but I’ve been getting into it more recently.

  14. Ooh this is such a fascinating idea for a list! Are you a fan of Story Corps? I think you would really love it. It’s people from around the country recording their stories, either with a friend or a facilitator from the organization. They have a few collections you can read, you can listen to the stories on their website, and they have a podcast or are featured on NPR occasionally.

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