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Friday, April 24, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: P.S.

This month the BPL Book Discussion group tried something new, we read Studs Terkel's last book, P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening. Terkel chose these short essays, interviews, and transcripts for inclusion in this slim volume before his death in October of 2008. What made this book "new" for our group is that it was the first time we discussed a work without a single narrative. I told the group that since there wasn't a continuous story, if you didn't enjoy an essay, just skip it and try the next. This worked for some participants, but others felt they had to read every word, even if they weren't into it; these readers got less enjoyment out of the work.

Since we are also a Chicago area group, some of the essays about the "uniqueness" of Chicago politics and the essays detailing the segregation of our city were "old news" to the 55+ aged participants. However, by far the most talked about essays were the interview with James Baldwin, the interview with the "white trash" (her words) woman in Uptown, and the collection of regular people's remembrances of their lives during the depression (recounted to Terkel in 1970-71).

Before I talk about specific discussion points, I should mention that there are no pre-prepared discussion questions for this book. Using this trusty general question list from the Fiction-L Archives and my own brain power I came up with the following questions to use in guiding the discussion (feel free to use them if your group does this book):
  1. Studs Terkel is a listener. He recounts what others say, without much editing. His voice is secondary. So, how did you feel about his writing style and the organization of this book?
  2. Did you find Terkel's subjects and the serious issues they are discussing uplifting or depressing? Why.
  3. Which essays or people ("characters") did you most enjoy? With which did you most identify? Sympathize? Were there any characters which you disliked?
  4. How is Chicago portrayed in P.S.? Was it a fair depiction? Did you learn something new about our city?
  5. Despite that fact that P.S. is a collection of essays, interviews, and radio show transcripts written over many years, this book still presents a unified message. What are the major themes of this work?
  6. How would you characterize the relationship between Studs Terkel and his subjects?
  7. What are the most revealing scenes in P.S.?
  8. One of the longer chapters in P.S. consists of recollection by "survivors" of the Great Depression collected by Terkel in the early 1970s. How do these statements read to you today in these difficult economic times, the worst since the Great Depression? What advice can we learn from these people?
  9. With Studs Terkel's passing who will take up his crusade of collecting the voices of regular people? How will they do it? What technology will they use and how will they spread their message?
From these 9 questions, we had a wide ranging discussion. The very first comment we had about the book is how Terkel makes you think about things differently. Since he really listens to people and gets at their "essence;" you get a different perspective on the issues. Our first example was Terkel's interview with James Baldwin. We were all struck by Baldwin's revelations about being a black man at a very difficult time in history. For example, Baldwin talks about how when he lived in America, he never wanted to eat watermelon or listen to the Blues; he didn't want to be a walking stereotype. But living in France he was able to enjoy both, and in fact, developed an appreciation for Blues as a result. Participants shared their experiences with black friends and working in minority public schools in Chicago during this time (late 60s to early 70s).

We continued our discussion by including the interview with the poor white woman in Uptown. We talked about discrimination by class too. On participant talked about when she lived in a small Iowa town, where everyone had the same income (more or less) and they were all white, they still found ways to separate into groups and look down upon others (in this case by religion). This led us to make an observation about how people always look for someone to look down on.

Now as I mentioned, this book is a bit choppy. In fact, I had a few participants for whom the organization of the work made reading it a bit of a chore. However, we did all agree that the overall theme of the book is the struggle to attain "The American Dream," and the dichotomy of "2 Americas."

We also spent a great deal of time talking about the voices from the Depression. This led to a lengthy discussion on today's economic downturn. One participant said that we do not have the survival skills that the people in the 1930s had. We do not know how to garden, can food, or sew clothes. Some people shared their personal experiences as children during this time. They talked about their kids and grandkids, and how they are coping today. One woman said we cannot stop economic collapses like the one today until we make living beyond your means unfashionable. During the Depression, my ladies remarked, we didn't know we were poor. Everyone was in the same boat. Today with all of the media showing the rich and famous; people know (and feel a stigma) when they have less material objects.

We wrapped up the discussion by talking about Studs Terkel himself. As he has famously said many times, "We need to know ourselves before we know others." One participant talked about Studs the listener, and how he is the perfect example of why God gave us 2 ears and only one mouth. Another once sat next to his table at dinner and watched him in action; talking very little, asking insightful questions, and just listening to his dinner guests. We decided that Terkel showed great respect for all of the people he interviewed and as a result, gained their trust. They would share even the most terrible story with him. Various comments included that people felt uplifted by his work; he brings out the best in people; he listens without trying to on-up them; and he never judges.

We all felt sadness that we had lost such a great Chicago (and American) treasure, but we hope that with advances in technology and the ease of recording these days, that someone will come along to continue to collect the stories of regular Americans. The closest we could come up with today are the films of Ken Burns and the Story Corps initiative.

Those who read P.S. may want to go and read more Studs Terkel or listen to his old radio shows. Use this link to get to his website for a full bibliography and audio links. Many may want to also read more by and/or about James Baldwin.

The best book about The Great Depression is The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Eagan.

Terkel's writing reminded me of a few novels in feel if not completely in subject matter. Jim the Boy by Tony Earley, A Painted House by John Grisham, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger would all make great suggestions to fans of this book.

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