When we read a book, we change our lives; we redesign the way we think by assimiliating certain parts of the writing into our own ideas, values, viewpoints. What power words have, and how glad I am that I grew up in a family of readers, writers, and lovers of words. Our home library was accessible to me all of the time (my father made shelves that lined the walls of the living room and guest room), and my mother took us weekly (and more!) to the local library.
Many of my close friends and several of my students know that I read Studs Terkel's "Working" when I was eight or nine years old. I can still imagine the red spine of the book peeking out of the shelves in the living room. It was a well-worked spine, with many wrinkles, and rightfully so. I think it was the heft of the book that appealed to me initially then. I was always wanting to read something that looked like a "big book." I found it to be easier to read that I'd imagined - the short sections of interviews, real people speaking in normal language. I became aware of colloquialisms (even though I didn't know what they were), dialects, and different speech patterns. I learned about all sorts of people and the lives they led, and found them all fascinating. I remember being surprised at the model talking about hauling a heavy wardrobe all over the city, and realizing how unglamorous being a model is.
I think "Working" found me at just the right time in my life. Reading it so early offered me the benefits of referring to its pages (and the memory of its contents when I am away from my copy), in a way that makes it feel like a parent to me. "Forget who you are and what your purpose is? Come here and read me," it whispers.
Studs Terkel understood the value in people sharing their life stories, and in writing them down. He honored that. Reading his book rearranged my pattern of thought, and made me part of who I am as a person and a writer today. "Working" is a book that has informed my values.