Most of us have experienced reading a seminal book in a genre previously unknown to us and discovering a new world. In 1972 while waiting for my father to finish a meeting with a client, I had picked up a bestseller, Working, by Studs Terkel. Up until that book, I read fiction for pleasure and only read non-fiction under duress (read: assigned by a teacher). Since that summer afternoon, I have sought books akin to Terkel’s collection of biographical sketches. These collections inhabit the lives of ordinary people (lives of the rich and/or famous holding absolutely no interest for me for whatever reason).
I am not sure there is a name for this type of non-fiction, but I will call it “Vicarious Living.” Reading profiles of regular people facing difficulties and learning about their hopes, dreams and frustrations help me understand myself. I also have a chance to explore worlds that I would never know otherwise.
Louis “Studs” Terkel (1912-2008), trained as a lawyer, was an actor, popular radio broadcaster in Chicago, and author. He had a radio interview show for over 40 years and started writing collections of interviews on a particular theme in the 1960s. In Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1972), Terkel interviewed workers as diverse as a gravedigger, a yacht broker and a bar pianist. Many of the 133 people whose interviews are included were unhappy in their work.
As a recent college graduate, I reflected on the qualities of a “good job.” I admired the perseverance of many who worked in physically demanding and poorly remunerated work. Rereading the book recently made me realize that Terkel’s 1972 bestseller is now a history of a long gone era when factory work was still prevalent and that many of the jobs common now did not exist.
From Terkel’s works I moved to that master of graceful non-fiction prose, John McPhee. Many of McPhee’s works are single-focus studies (oranges, tectonic plates, the pine barrens of New Jersey), but in Uncommon Carriers (2006) he explores the life and work of those who carry goods across the country. He rides with a long distance tank-trucker, and we learn the intricacies of cleaning the interior of tanks as well as the trucker’s particular lifestyle: his “library” of expensive boots and his daily search for The Wall Street Journal in the most unlikely places. McPhee also spends time with a towboat captain on the Illinois River; he explains the mind-boggling sorting and shipping accomplished by UPS at their “Worldport” near Louisville, Kentucky; he muses with train engineers on the regulations that have made trains less efficient.
I finished the book knowing more about how commerce works, and this social worker garnered arcane details about all sorts of interests previously unknown to me (train watching, ship turns, the most dangerous highways). My appreciation for the special talent and knowledge of those individuals who carry goods from one end of the country to another increased a hundredfold.
My latest passion in this particular genre of entering the lives of others is Andrew Solomon’s lengthy and entirely worthy opus Far From the Tree (2012). Solomon spent years researching and interviewing families to understand the stresses of parenting a child whose identity is significantly different from that of his parents (what Solomon calls “horizontal identity” as opposed to “vertical identity”). These horizontal identities are engendered by genetic expression (dwarfism, Down Syndrome, hearing impairment, schizophrenia) or unusual life circumstances (children conceived by rape, children as criminals). In all, he profiles ten categories of horizontal identities, spending time with hundreds of individuals.
Solomon incorporates disability rights information (Deaf Pride movement, Little People’s Association) as well as recent medical research on the issue being examined. We learn, for example, that transsexuals have the distinction of belonging to the group with the highest rates of both committing suicide and being victims of homicide. We are privy to the struggles of parents and their acceptance of the hand they’ve been dealt.
In my field we know the term “chronic sorrow,” a phrase coined in 1962 by the rehabilitation counselor Simon Olshansky to describe the long-term struggle with depression that parents of “special needs” children experience. Reading the interviews in this book reveals that many parents move beyond sorrow to a sense of purpose and deep fulfillment. When asked if they could “cure” their son, the parents of a Down Syndrome young man reply, “For David [their son], I’d cure it in an instant; but for us, I wouldn’t exchange these experiences for anything. They’ve made us who we are, and who we are is so much better than who we would have been otherwise.”
Reading these books has made me open to the lives of others, more tolerant and understanding. Do you love to inhabit the lives, difficult as they may be, of other people? What other books can you recommend that will open us to new worlds with compassion?
Editor’s note: This is Claudia’s last post for Readers Unbound. She is cutting back on some of her commitments to focus her attention on her more passionate pursuits: as a counselor and as the head of an ESOL program. We at Readers Unbound will miss Claudia’s thoughtful humane articles, but we are grateful for her as an “uncommon carrier” of kindness.