The most recommended oral history books

Who picked these books? Meet our 29 experts.

29 authors created a book list connected to oral history, and here are their favorite oral history books.
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Book cover of Gone Shopping: The Story of Shirley Pitts - Queen of Thieves

Caitlin Davies Author Of Queens of the Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks

From my list on female crooks.

Why am I passionate about this?

I first became fascinated by the portrayal of female criminals when I wrote a novel, The Ghost of Lily Painter, based on the first women to be executed at Holloway Prison in London in 1903. Holloway was the most infamous female jail in Europe and shortly before it closed down in 2016, I was given access to the prison archives. That led to Bad Girls, nominated for the Orwell Prize, and it also led to the discovery of a forgotten criminal aristocracy -  the women who were once so notorious they were Public Enemy No.1. 

Caitlin's book list on female crooks

Caitlin Davies Why did Caitlin love this book?

Stories of professional thieving by women are very rare, especially first-hand accounts, and so Gone Shopping is an unusual book. It tells the tale of Shirley Pitts, Queen of the Shoplifters, who was a career criminal for 50 years. Professor Lorraine Gamman based the book on years of oral recordings and her description of Shirley Pitts could apply to many other female crooks. She was "a woman in a man’s world who succeeded. She was not a victim, she had agency, she wanted more."

By Lorraine Gamman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gone Shopping as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Voted one of The Guardian's top 10 best crime books of all time and one of the best true crime books ever written according to Stylist

Shirley Pitts, the eldest of six children was born upside down on 24 November 1934. Her 'career' began by thieving bread off doorsteps and coal from coal carts. Her father's bungled attempts at black marketeering and her dipsomaniac mother's inadequacies made Shirley resolve not only to be a first-class thief but also the best mother her six children could wish for.

Before she died Shirley told her story to Lorraine - the story of…


Book cover of Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do

Adrian Wilkinson Author Of Human Resource Management: A Very Short Introduction

From my list on managing people and working lives.

Why am I passionate about this?

My grandfather was a labour activist in Hull in the UK and my father had many classic labour texts such as the book by Tressell, listed below. That got me interested in the world of work and later more specifically in managing people. I moved from studying economics to employment relations /human resource management. Given that most of us (workers) spend 80,000 hours of our lives at work - more time than we are likely to spend on any other activity during our lifetimes - how we spend these lives has remained a source of fascination

Adrian's book list on managing people and working lives

Adrian Wilkinson Why did Adrian love this book?

It is a rich and memorable oral history of America told by more than a hundred workers across a huge slice of American working life including those of paperboys, photographers, switchboard operators, actors, writers, executives, barbers, sanitation truck drivers, stockbrokers, professional athletes, teachers, grave diggers, lettuce pickers and many more.

It shows how work is a search for both a daily crust and meaning. The book inspired a musical and a recent Netflix series with Obama as the host.

By Studs Terkel,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Working as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Perhaps Studs Terkel's best-known book, Working is a compelling, fascinating look at jobs and the people who do them. Consisting of over one hundred interviews conducted with everyone from gravediggers to studio heads, this book provides a timeless snapshot of people's feelings about their working lives, as well as a relevant and lasting look at how work fits into American life.



Book cover of Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused

Mark Yarm Author Of Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge

From my list on oral history about art, music, TV, and movies.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am currently the features editor at Input, a website about tech and culture. Earlier in my career, I worked at the now-defunct music magazine Blender, for which I wrote an oral history of Sub Pop, the Seattle label that put out early records by the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney. That article was the basis of my book for Everybody Loves Our Town. I’m also a widely published freelancer, with pieces in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Wired, WSJ. Magazine, Rolling Stone, and many other outlets.

Mark's book list on oral history about art, music, TV, and movies

Mark Yarm Why did Mark love this book?

Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater’s plot-light, pot-heavy 1993 film about Texas teens hanging out on the last day of school in 1976, is perhaps my favorite movie ever, so I was already inclined to love this oral history about the film’s creation and legacy. Maerz expertly weaves the voices of almost everyone involved in the project from breakout star Matthew McConaughey to members of the crew — to create a highly entertaining, super-compelling look at a stoner cinema classic.

By Melissa Maerz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Alright, Alright, Alright as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Melissa Maerz's brilliant oral history is the definitive account of a cult-classic movie that took a slow ride into the Seventies and defined the Nineties." -Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone

The definitive oral history of the cult classic Dazed and Confused, featuring behind-the-scenes stories from the cast, crew, and Oscar-nominated director Richard Linklater.

Dazed and Confused not only heralded the arrival of filmmaker Richard Linklater, it introduced a cast of unknowns who would become the next generation of movie stars. Embraced as a cultural touchstone, the 1993 film would also make Matthew McConaughey's famous phrase-alright, alright, alright-ubiquitous. But it started with…


Book cover of Japan at War: An Oral History

Stewart Binns Author Of Barbarossa: And The Bloodiest War In History

From my list on 20th century conflict.

Why am I passionate about this?

Stewart Binns is a former academic, soldier, and documentary filmmaker, who became a writer quite late in life. He has since written a wide range of books in both fiction and non-fiction. His passions are history and sport. He has completed a medieval quartet called the Making of England Series, two books about the Great War and a novel set during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. His latest work of non-fiction, Barbarossa, tells the story of the Eastern Front (1945 to 1944) from the perspective of the peoples of Eastern Europe. He is now working on a history of modern Japan.

Stewart's book list on 20th century conflict

Stewart Binns Why did Stewart love this book?

Oral history sources have always been central to my work, both as an author and a documentary-maker. Cook’s account of the experiences of ordinary Japanese people during the Second World War is one of the best. It is both powerful and a lesson about the utter tragedy of war.

By Theodore F. Cook, Haruko Taya Cook,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Japan at War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A "deeply moving book" (Studs Terkel) and the first ever oral history to document the experience of ordinary Japanese people during World War II

"Hereafter no one will be able to think, write, or teach about the Pacific War without reference to [the Cooks'] work." -Marius B. Jansen, Emeritus Professor of Japanese History, Princeton University

This pathbreaking work of oral history by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook was the first book ever to capture the experience of ordinary Japanese people during the war and remains the classic work on the subject.

In a sweeping panorama, Japan at War…


Book cover of Joe Gould's Teeth

Timothy J. Shannon Author Of Indian Captive, Indian King: Peter Williamson in America and Britain

From my list on con artists and imposters.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a professor at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where I teach Early American, Native American, and British history. My books include Indians and Colonists at the Crossroads of Empire: The Albany Congress of 1754 and Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier. As a historian, I've long been fascinated by stories of imposters, charlatans, and con artists. I like fictional and factual picaresque tales about people set adrift in strange lands and I have a soft spot for unreliable narrators. Historians are a skeptical breed, so slippery characters like those featured in the books listed here represent a welcome challenge: can you trust them as far as you can throw them? 

Timothy's book list on con artists and imposters

Timothy J. Shannon Why did Timothy love this book?

Joe Gould first came to the world’s attention when Joseph Mitchell published two articles about him in the New Yorker in the mid-twentieth century. A self-described bohemian, he was an eccentric denizen of Greenwich Village who claimed to be writing “The Oral History of Our Time,” a massive, revolutionary book that Gould said would be read by generations yet to come. Or, was he really just a heavy drinking raconteur who ingratiated himself among some of the leading artists, poets, and writers of his day? Jill Lepore pushes Gould’s story beyond Mitchell’s original version, finding darker truths behind it.

By Jill Lepore,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Joe Gould's Teeth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From New Yorker staff writer and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, the dark, spellbinding tale of her restless search for the missing longest book ever written, a century-old manuscript called “The Oral History of Our Time.”

Joe Gould’s Teeth is a Poe-like tale of detection, madness, and invention. Digging through archives all over the country, Lepore unearthed evidence that “The Oral History of Our Time” did in fact once exist. Relying on letters, scraps, and Gould’s own diaries and notebooks—including volumes of his lost manuscript—Lepore argues that Joe Gould’s real secret had to do with sex and the color line, with…


Book cover of A Brief History of Seven Killings

Jonathan Howland Author Of Native Air

From my list on books about men in love (who aren’t lovers).

Why am I passionate about this?

During a lonely stretch of primary school, I recall discussing my predicament with my mother. “You only need one friend,” she said by way of encouragement. Some part of me agreed. I’ve been fortunate to have had (and to have) several friends in my life, never more than a few at a time, more men than women, and each has prompted me to be and become more vital and spacious than I was prior to knowing them. The books I’m recommending—and the one I wrote—feature these types of catalyzing, life-changing relationships. Each involves some kind of adventure. Each evokes male friendship that is gravitational, not merely influential, but life-defining.

Jonathan's book list on books about men in love (who aren’t lovers)

Jonathan Howland Why did Jonathan love this book?

You think your life is complicated. Alliances in this mammoth, magnificent novel turn on a dime (or a brick), but several deep connections are life-altering.

For one: the Jamaican dealer Weeper defies category; he’s both violent and tender, both gay and appalled by his homosexuality. When he falls for another man post-prison, he has both to confront and to conceal his panoply of contradictions—which becomes excruciating and finally impossible when boss (and friend) Josey Wales flies in to inspect the Bushwick operation.

I love the intrigue, disclosure, and virtuosity. Nothing simple, nothing easy, nothing dull.

By Marlon James,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Brief History of Seven Killings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2015* JAMAICA, 1976 Seven gunmen storm Bob Marley's house, machine guns blazing. The reggae superstar survives, but the gunmen are never caught. From the acclaimed author of The Book of Night Women comes a dazzling display of masterful storytelling exploring this near-mythic event. Spanning three decades and crossing continents, A Brief History of Seven Killings chronicles the lives of a host of unforgettable characters - slum kids, drug lords, journalists, prostitutes, gunmen, and even the CIA. Gripping and inventive, ambitious and mesmerising, A Brief History of Seven Killings is one of the most remarkable…


Book cover of Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History

James R. Farr Author Of Who Was William Hickey? A Crafted Life in Georgian England and Imperial India

From my list on autobiography, memory, identity, and the self.

Why am I passionate about this?

I stumbled upon Hickey’s memoirs and while reading them became captivated not only by the frequently hilarious episodes he recounts from his life, but also by the subject of autobiography and how narrating our life story somehow projects a sense of self and identity to the reader. Trying to grasp this process led me to exploring a wide range of books, and opened up understanding of how our selves are fashioned and what they mean to others. An endlessly fascinating subject.

James' book list on autobiography, memory, identity, and the self

James R. Farr Why did James love this book?

The authors explore why and how personal narratives should be used as evidence (in my case, in history), and the methods and pitfalls of their use. The authors stress the importance of recognizing that stories that people tell about their lives are never simply individual. Rather, they are told in historically specific times and settings and call on rules, models, and social experiences that govern how story elements link together in the process of self-narration. Stories show how individuals' motivations, emotions, and imaginations have been shaped by their cumulative life experiences. This book reveals in simple, jargon-free prose the understanding that takes place between narrators of personal narratives and their audience and enriches the results immeasurably.

By Mary Jo Maynes, Jennifer L. Pierce, Barbara Laslett

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Telling Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Telling Stories, Mary Jo Maynes, Jennifer L. Pierce, and Barbara Laslett argue that personal narratives-autobiographies, oral histories, life history interviews, and memoirs-are an important research tool for understanding the relationship between people and their societies. Gathering examples from throughout the world and from premodern as well as contemporary cultures, they draw from labor history and class analysis, feminist sociology, race relations, and anthropology to demonstrate the value of personal narratives for scholars and students alike.

Telling Stories explores why and how personal narratives should be used as evidence, and the methods and pitfalls of their use. The authors stress…


Book cover of Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945

Valerie Knowles Author Of Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2015

From my list on capturing Canada’s colourful immigration history.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a Canadian freelance writer, who has a BA in honours history from Smith College, an MA in history from McGill University, and a Bachelor in Journalism from Carleton University. As I have a special interest in Canadian history and Canadian biography, I have authored books in these subject areas. These include an award-winning biography of Sir William Van Horne, a polymath and railway general who pushed through the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and Cairine Wilson. Canada’s first woman senator, who was celebrated for her work with refugees in the 1930s and 1940s, and a best-selling survey of Canadian immigration and immigration policy, Strangers At Our Gates.

Valerie's book list on capturing Canada’s colourful immigration history

Valerie Knowles Why did Valerie love this book?

Although the English are among the largest immigrant groups contributing to the development of modern Canada, their story remained, for the most part, untold until the publication of this book in 2015. In this carefully researched work of popular history, Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson recount the personal experiences of English immigrants who elected to come to Canada between the 1940s and 1970s, England’s last major wave of emigration. Most of these postwar English immigrants thought they were going to a country whose language and culture would be familiar. Instead, like other immigrants, they contended with separation from loved ones back home while adapting to a new landscape and culture. Moreover, although they did not appear visibly different from their neighbours, these newcomers were immediately labelled “foreigners” as soon as they started to speak.

By Marilyn Barber, Murray Watson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Invisible Immigrants as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite being one of the largest immigrant groups contributing to the development of modern Canada, the story of the English has been all but untold. In Invisible Immigrants, Barber and Watson document the experiences of English-born immigrants who chose to come to Canada during England's last major wave of emigration between the 1940s and the 1970s. Engaging life story oral histories reveal the aspirations, adventures, occasional naivete, and challenges of these hidden immigrants. Postwar English immigrants believed they were moving to a familiar British country. Instead, like other immigrants, they found they had to deal with separation from home and…


Book cover of Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

Henry Virgin Author Of Exit Rostov

From my list on psychological enquiry in alternative formats.

Why am I passionate about this?

Certain books have the ability to inspire you or help you go beyond the boundaries of your understanding, to teach you something new or to show you how to look at things differently, to alter and enhance your perception. Each of these texts have encouraged and enchanted me, with hard-won truths. I appreciate the style of writing which draws you further and further into the author's psyche, and thus into your own, like deep diving into uncharted depths. Also, as someone who tries to write poetry and prose, I find each of these writers have a refreshing and interesting technique and method of communicating their thoughts and ideas.

Henry's book list on psychological enquiry in alternative formats

Henry Virgin Why did Henry love this book?

If you would like to try and understand the Soviet and post-Soviet psyche, these first-hand, verbatim interviews from 1991-2012, by Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian Nobel Laureate, question and discuss what it means and meant to be a Soviet. With a wide selection of individual testimonies from different backgrounds of the Soviet Union, from ordinary folk to officials, prisoners, relatives of those who were murdered, the executioners, the book also investigates how they coped when the Soviet Union broke down. Written from transcribed, spoken recordings, these documentary / reportage texts get to the heart of the matter—often that there is a gaping vacancy in the place of what one had previously believed in, from one's earliest of days, even before becoming a red-scarfed Pioneer. When one's whole philosophical fabric has been torn down, how do you exist? How do you cope and make sense of the world? What really is so…

By Svetlana Alexievich, Bela Shayevich,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Secondhand Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A symphonic oral history about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia, from Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST AND PUBLISHERS WEEKLY • LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE WINNER

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
The New York Times • The Washington Post • The Boston Globe • The Wall Street Journal • NPR • Financial Times • Kirkus Reviews

When the Swedish Academy awarded Svetlana Alexievich the…


Book cover of Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression

Ruth Talbot Author Of The Raffle Baby

From my list on the human experience during the Great Depression.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a research nerd at heart. I am happiest pouring over historic newspapers online (thank you Library of Congress) or digging into a non-fiction book. The research I do for a book can be more rewarding than writing the book itself. When I read a 1933 article about a baby that would be given away as a prize during a civic fundraiser, I was hooked. What desperation would lead a parent to give away a child? Who would buy such a raffle ticket? Who thought this would be a good idea? I never did find the answers to my questions, so I made up my own.

Ruth's book list on the human experience during the Great Depression

Ruth Talbot Why did Ruth love this book?

I read this book when I was a graduate student studying journalism, but it has never stopped resonating with me. When I began to research my novel set in the Great Depression, I returned to Hard Times and also had the good fortune to find and listen to the recordings of Terkel’s interview subjects. This book is essentially a collection of oral histories that runs the gamut of the human condition during the Great Depression: those who had everything, those who had nothing and everyone in-between. This is “person-on-the-street” journalism at its finest. The stories are mesmerizing and the voices are authentic. That is the magic of this amazing journalist who captured the voices of the world for decades.

By Studs Terkel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hard Times as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Good War: A masterpiece of modern journalism and "a huge anthem in praise of the American spirit" (Saturday Review).

In this "invaluable record" of one of the most dramatic periods in modern American history, Studs Terkel recaptures the Great Depression of the 1930s in all its complexity. Featuring a mosaic of memories from politicians, businessmen, artists, striking workers, and Okies, from those who were just kids to those who remember losing a fortune, Hard Times is not only a gold mine of information but a fascinating interplay of memory and fact, revealing how…