• Sue Kwong

This winter, the Reader has set a humble goal for itself: to determine the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written. We chose 16 books that reflected the wide range of books that have come out of Chicago and the wide range of people who live here and assembled them into an NCAA-style bracket. Then we recruited a crack team of writers, editors, booksellers, and scholars as well as a few Reader staffers to judge each bout. The results of each contest will be published every Monday, along with an essay by each judge explaining his or her choice. The Reader reader who best predicts the judges’ rulings will win a trip to Mexico.

In this week’s contest, the third bout in round two, Peggy Shinner, Northwestern professor and author of the essay collection You Feel So Mortal, adjudicates between Audrey Niffenegger’s sci-fi romance The Time Traveler’s Wife and Studs Terkel’s oral history Working. To see the results of previous bouts, look here.

Let’s start with my prejudices.

My task is to adjudicate between Studs Terkel’s Working and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, oral histories up against a novel. I came in with opinions, received, rash, possibly unfounded. Studs Terkel is an edifice, a monument, so surely Working would be the same. The tome was yet unopened, but already in the lead. And I eschewed The Time Traveler’s Wife when it first came out in 2003 because I wasn’t a sci-fi fan, except for a brief and long-ago dalliance with Ursula LeGuin; furthermore the novel was wildly popular, which tapped into a certain innate snobbiness on my part and made it suspect. You’ll note that initially I conflated Working and Terkel while, for me at least, The Time Traveler’s Wife had no coattails.

And then something happened. I began reading. First up was Working. Terkel’s introduction is masterful: smart, pointed, poetic; right away I’m in good hands. “This book, being about work, is by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.” After enumerating the violations—ulcers, accidents, shouting matches, fistfights, nervous breakdowns—he adds, “It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor. . . .”

More than a hundred interviews follow, people talking about their jobs. (Of those, 30 percent are women, similar to the percentage of women in the workplace in 1970, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) There are autoworkers, teachers, athletes, farmers, stockbrokers, bank clerks, cops. A skycap, a piano tuner, a producer, a prostitute. One after another the voices sing or wail. Longing, bewilderment, revelation abound. Terkel himself is everywhere and nowhere. He elicits the answers, but the questions are elided; he almost totally disappears. Terry Mason, a stewardess, says, “We had to go to stew school for five weeks. . . .They showed you how to smoke a cigarette, when to smoke a cigarette, how to look in a man’s eyes.” And Elmer Ruiz, a grave digger, notes, “A human body is goin’ into this grave. That’s why you need skill when you’re gonna dig a grave.”

So what’s the problem? Torpor set in; the book was almost unreadable. In fact, it’s not meant to be read. It’s like an encyclopedia, meant to be consulted, sampled. Though the interviews, on their own, are absorbing, Working lacks what John Gardner once called profluence or “forward flowingness;” the sense, “as we read, that we’re getting somewhere.” Not even halfway in and I was stuck, laboring under the slow pace and the seemingly unbearable burden of 400 more pages. I put Working aside and turned to The Time Traveler’s Wife. This, at least, I could read.

Swiftly. It can be downed in a few quick gulps. The Time Traveler’s Wife is romance, with a twist. Clare Abshire, paper artist, and Henry DeTamble, Newberry librarian, are destined to come together; love fiercely, sweetly; and then, in the way of love stories, tragically break apart. It’s all foretold. Henry has a genetic disorder, chrono-displacement, that propels him into both the past and future, and it’s violent, sad, exhilarating, funny, out of his control. I won’t explain the mechanics, which I really didn’t get anyway; suffice to say that time warps in a relationship when you can see its unraveling, and the novel raises the question about the desirability of such knowledge. If only I knew. . . Maybe not. Besides, it’s the love story that matters here, Henry and Clare, who are their most compelling when coupling: sex holds them down, their conjoining an anchor. “Being physically connected the way we are,” says Henry, “it’s kind of rewiring my brain.” When, in the end, Henry dies, as he must, as his chrono-displacement dictates from the onset, I wept.

Is that how to judge a book? Tears shed? It moved me, yes; I enjoyed it, yes again, but are those the sum measures of a book’s merit? The Time Traveler’s Wife was a good read, but ultimately it was all story and not enough meaning. I was moved and empty at the same time. What did it have to tell me?

And then something happened again. I went back to Working, pushing through to the finish, and the book began to reassemble itself in my mind, the pieces sorted out differently. The weight of accrual set in. The litany of loss, yearning, bitterness, pride; large and small fulfillments: together they acquired considerable heft. The steelworker wants to make his imprint, and the firefighter echoes, “It shows something I did on this earth.” Such sentiments are quotidian and mythic.

Virginia Woolf addresses this process—of reading and discerning and deciding—in her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” (from The Common Reader: Second Series) First there is the “fast flocking of innumerable impressions . . . one-shadow-shape against another.” Then there is the assimilation: “Suddenly without our willing it . . . the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases. Details now fit themselves into their places. We see the shape from start to finish. . . . [O]ur attitude has changed.”

Our attitude has changed.

A word—finally—about the Chicago angle: I ignored it. Both books are steeped in Chicago cred. The Time Traveler’s Wife is set here, and I got a kick out of being able to visit the familiar, mostly north-side locations alongside Henry and Clare. My friend M. and I even discussed touring the Newberry together. As for Working, Studs Terkel may be Chicago, but the book is not, or not solely, and the testimonies are rural as well as urban. New York even has a say. So I travel back to Woolf and offer her observation about common readers: “And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant. . . . We cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.”

Time Traveler had a strong following among voters, but the majority predicted that Judge Shinner would favor Working. Voting for round three begins February 10.

  • Sue Kwong