Life is not organized, logical, or factually accurate. Yet we require this of our history books, which must contain names, dates, verifiable pieces of evidence, and claims about cause-and-effect. Event A leads to Event B. Event C happened on December 15th, 1910. Person X was at Place Y During The Conflict of Z. It can all get rather drab and unrealistic. There is something particularly dulling about reading a list of dates and proper nouns and thinking these alone compose our lives. Where’s the hilarity, hurt, daily bafflement, and sense of fun? History books miss out on a lot, particularly the general pell-mell-ness that pervades life, where cause-and-effect is displaced by the indecipherable and happenstance forces that influence our actions and beliefs. This is why oral histories rule.
Oral histories are collections of voices all jousting to be heard. Whether they’re about a life, an era, or a single event, oral histories convey the necessary complexity, where details collide and thesis statements don’t matter. They are messy, chaotic, and incongruent—patchwork quilts of anecdotes, recollections, non-sequitors, and stories that begin with a promise but don’t really end, stories filled with incorrect information, nostalgia for even the worst events, positive memories of mean people, and much more, stories stuffed with dreams, debris, and insignificant moments—the true fabric of the history.
Here are 5 great oral histories:
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
Please Kill Me is a wicked traipse through the gutter-glamour of ’70s New York. There’s Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Jayne (né Wayne) County, and the Ramones, plus a whole slue of record industry insiders, drug addicts, scenesters and weirdoes. The music is great and the talk uproarious. From tales of Jim Morrison’s depravity to anecdotes about those doomed birds Sid and Nancy, there is something for everyone in Please Kill Me. “There was never a yesterday or a tomorrow,” says one punk rocker. Only an insane today. This book is funny, gross, and outrageous, an underground oral history that is a riot of voices.