The Oral History: An Appreciation


Sometimes you tell the story, and sometimes you let the story tell itself.

It may seem weird to call a book an “oral history,” but that’s exactly what this genre is: the story of a topic as told by the people who lived it.  Rather than an author paraphrasing the participants’ words, they are quoted verbatim and arranged in a fashion that tells the story chronologically.  The author of a given oral history book acts more like a transcriber, editor, and occasional narrator, adding only introductory segments or brief statements that link various accounts.  In a lot of ways, it’s like reading a documentary film.

It’s also a handy tool for showing conflicting accounts of events.  You can watch whole arguments play out on the page.  Oral histories are great for that… all the yelling without any of that, you know, tedious actual yelling.

Here are some oral histories worth checking out if you’re interested in checking out some examples of this unique genre:

please kill mePlease Kill Me – The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain – Probably the place to start with this particular genre, whether you’re interested in punk or not.  Lots of legends surround the early days of punk rock, which is arguably the greatest “you had to be there to really appreciate it” movement in the history of rock and roll, and chances are you weren’t there.  The folks interviewed in this book were, and a surprising number of them still remember a lot of it, from the early days with the Velvet Underground, MC5 and Iggy & the Stooges to the heydays of the Ramones, Television, and the Sex Pistols, up through Black Flag and Fugazi.  Here’s the HELIN catalog listing.

live from nyLive From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales & Andrew Miller – SNL has had about as crazy a history as any TV series you can name, and the backstage stories have as many ups and downs as the show itself.  The stories of antics of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players and likes of later stars like Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, or Will Ferrell are fun to read, but the down times – particularly the infamous 1980 season, often known as the painfully unfunny stretch where newspaper writers first coined the headline “Saturday Night Dead” – are somehow even more interesting read about, if a lot more tragic (poor Charles Rocket…).  It, too, can be found through HELIN.

ESPNESPN: Those Guys Have All the Fun by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales – Long before they had the broadcast rights for the NFL and Major League Baseball, and before SportsCenter became a nightly routine for even people who don’t like sports, ESPN still put sporting events on the air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Sometimes it was local Connecticut stuff, sometimes it was professional wrestling (usually Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association) or roller derby, and sometimes it was chess and spelling bees.  And bowling… oh, so much bowling.  Through it all, they managed to not only stay on the air, but keep it interesting, thanks in large part to the roster of talent they’ve put on the air through the years.  Worth a look to see things from their perspective, especially since not everyone has such fond memories of their days in Bristol, CT.  And yes, HELIN has this one, too (in fact, Bryant owns a copy).

The oral history format isn’t just limited to non-fiction, either.  Here are some examples of fictional works that make use of the format:

World War ZWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks – People like to talk about how scary The Walking Dead is, but most of that is people standing around wondering where that kid got off to.  This book, on the other hand, really is scary because Books (son of comedy legend Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft) gives each character a unique voice and goes into such detail you have to check to make sure none of this really happened.  He does his job a little too well.  Much better than the upcoming Brad Pitt movie is likely to, so give this a read.  And here’s the HELIN catalog listing.

avengers assembleAvengers Assemble: An Oral History of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes by Brian Michael Bendis – Not the story of the creation of the comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck at the rest, but story of the creation of the team as told by Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Wasp, and the rest.  Bendis has an amazing penchant for snappy dialogue, so book told through nothing but that dialogue is pretty much a slam dunk, even if you’re not a comic book fan and maybe only know the characters from last summer’s movie.  Not available through HELIN, sadly, but maybe you can track this down through Interlibrary Loan.