Studs Terkel was a particular hero of mine. I liked his name, his style and his look but also the way he wrote about things. When I was editing a magazine on work and workplaces, I was often inspired by his interviews with ordinary Americans about their jobs and how they felt about them. He did lots of other stuff but that was his work that was most relevant to my own.
What is especially striking is that he saw himself as a chronicler of other people’s lives rather than a commentator on them. The voices of others come across very strongly in his writing, especially in his book Working.
He stands in marked contrast to Alain de Botton, whose latest book on the same theme was launched recently. De Botton’s book has been backed by a very good PR campaign that has seen the new book forming the basis for feature articles in a wide range of newspapers and magazines from The Times to Management Today.
But in many ways de Botton is the main protagonist in his own book. The lives of other people are there as the grist to his mill. I’m not especially knocking him for this. He’s admirable in many ways and he is a product of our times. But like many of us nowadays he fails Lenny Bruce’s injunction to see ‘what is, not what should be’.
That is not something you could ever level at Studs Terkel. He was something that has been lost in the modern sea of opinion, an oral historian. Not trying to change the world, but record it.