What Are They Reading?

What Are They Reading?

This is a book that should be on every activist’s bed table, like Gideon bibles in hotels.


Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times.

By Studs Terkel.
The New Press. 326 pp. $25.95.

This is a book that should be on every activist’s bed table, like Gideon bibles in hotels. For some thirty-five years now Studs Terkel has been giving us a procession of oral histories–Division Street, Hard Times, Working, American Dreams: Lost and Found, The “Good War” and many others. Now at the age 91 he has produced another. While it’s not up there with epics like Hard Times and The “Good War”, it is one of his most important books.

He credits his title to Jessie de la Cruz, a retired United Farm Workers member. It’s a Spanish saying: La esperanza muere ultima. “You can’t lose hope,” she told Studs. “If you lose hope you lose everything.” “Hope is a thing with feathers,” said Emily Dickinson. It’s a soaring thing; without it you’re grounded. The opposite of hope is giving up, doing nothing. Studs is making a call here for a more muscular citizenship. You don’t need to be a full-time activist, he says, but you do need to read, think, debate, write letters, vote and volunteer. Hope Dies Last is packed with voices to inspire you–realistic, unillusioned voices: politicians, unionists, activists, organizers. Dennis Kucinich, Clancy Sigal, Gene LaRoque, Tom Hayden, Staughton Lynd, Arlo Guthrie, John Kenneth Galbraith, Jerry Brown, Frances Moore Lappé, Pete Seeger and others testify about their hopes, fears and political faith. Most of the cast are on the left, with a sprinkling of conservatives like Dan Burton, a Republican Representative from Indiana.

Here’s Staughton Lynd, lawyer and socialist: “People can make decisions together. When problems arise, if they confront them head-on they have a pretty good chance of working them out…. Sooner or later, people will figure out a more cooperative way to do things.”

Roberta Lynch, deputy head of Illinois AFSCME: “It’s about action. You feel that things can happen, the possibility, the hope. You feel ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”

Tim Black, a retired Chicago teacher: “I used to say in my classes, black and white: ‘How do you stay sane in an insane society?’ The community concept is one way–the feelings of security, of trust, of sharing. Otherwise you would think you’re crazy and they’re sane.”

Mel Leventhal, civil rights lawyer: “You have to see the potential for change. And you’ve got to see it not in terms of the moment but in terms of the long view, the long haul…. I’m not optimistic. But I’m not giving up. Can’t afford to.”

There’s a technical name for Studs’s books: oral histories. Oral history is a kind of stepchild of history proper. It nets what William James called “the blooming buzz of experience.” It’s raw data, awaiting further organization, selection and analysis. Oral historians record the testimony of history’s eyewitnesses.

But as well as being grist for historians, Studs’s books have a character and identity of their own. They are people’s histories, in which the people are allowed to talk for themselves, unmediated by any historian. They are also a species of literature. They are not simply the mechanical emissions of a tape recorder but the unique work of a human author, a talented listener who draws people’s stories out of them. Note how in Hope Dies Last Studs pans nuggets of oral poetry:

“Years ago, when I went to Ireland for the first time, it rained and rained and rained. I was on a bus, and I said aloud to the old woman next to me, ‘Is it ever going to clear up?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘we live in hope and die in despair.’ She laughed.” (Tom Geoghegan, labor lawyer)

“There was a generation gap, a silence that came over the heart…” (Tom Hayden, activist, on the 1960s)

“They [homeless people] drifted off just like ashes in the wind.” (Rene Maxwell, advocate)

Studs orchestrates a choral work that releases the voices of ordinary (and extraordinary) people. Their stories are artless, from the heart, but they have the simplicity of art–a kind of folk art. His books make Studs our national griot. He bears the tales of the American tribe and sews them together in a great patchwork quilt that speaks: “Hello, world. Here’s US–in our own words.”

As a political document, Hope Dies Last is also a time bomb of a book, packed with verbal TNT and set to go off in your mind. It’s a call for concerned, active citizenship. Get hold of it–it might make you want to change the world.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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