Studs Terkel died today at ninety-six. I discovered his work rather late in his career, only about ten years ago, but since then I've read him as often as I could. As a nonfiction writer, Studs was an icon. He had the ability to take people's words and turn them into inspiration. He was an oral historian. He recorded people's words and put them on the page in a way that made his subjects sing.
My favorite Studs' work is Will the Circle be Unbroken? It's full of people talking about death. While it might not seem like a feel-good topic, it's a fascinating look at how different cultures and faiths deal with the inevitable. I've read it several times and feel the need to read it again soon. Other books to read are Working, Hope Dies Last, Division Street, and his memoir Touch and Go, which was published in 2007.
Throughout Touch and Go Terkel mentions that he has been fortunate to have lived so long, that he has outlived almost all of his friends. "At 94," he says "I've come to the realization that I am 99 and 44/100ths dead"
(that's a play on a popular ad campaign by Ivory Soap from a long time ago), and it's my favorite line of the book.
I was surprised to read in that book that Terkel did not publish his first oral history until he was 55. Before then he had a long career in broadcasting and public service. He had an interesting life.
It feels weird to be so seriously bummed out about the death of someone who missed living to be a century by four years, but I feel like Terkel still had some words left in him that will never make it out now. It's a selfish feeling; I loved his work, and I wish there was more forthcoming.