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How Studs taught me to read a book

Dear Readers: In response to my blog item, "How Studs has helped me live my life," Sun-Times editor and columnist Tom Mcnamee sent me the following priceless memory. RE

From Tom Mcnamee, Chicago, IL:

Fifteen years ago, when Studs turned 80 and everybody even then thought he was getting pretty old, the Sun-Times assigned me to write a story about
him. The idea was to fuss over him while we could.

I showed up at Studs' office holding a copy of what was then his latest book, Race.

"You've got my book!" Studs said. "Let me see!"

(I apologize for the exclamation points. Amateurish, I know. But with Studs, I can't get around them.)

Studs leaped forward, grabbed the book from my hands and flipped through it. What he was looking for, I had no idea. It was his book -- he wrote it -- so he already knew what was in it.

Studs shook his head.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Did you read it?" he asked.

"Sure," I said.

"But there's nothing in it!" he said.

Studs reached back and grabbed another book off a shelf. He flipped it open and held it out to me.

Now I understood.

Studs had filled almost every inch of white space with his own handwritten comments. In the margins, he had scribbled things like "Really?" and "Absolutely!" and "Forgot about factory jobs." He had underlined sentences and circled paragraphs.

I marveled at the whole inked-up mess. Apparently when Studs reads a book, he goes at it like a conversation, a debate, a two-way street.

"This is how you read a book!" he said.

As I said, that was 15 years ago, and now I always try to read books the Studs Terkel way, mixing it up with the author with my pen.

But to be honest, it's hard.

Something about writing in a book goes against all my childhood training, against some quasi-religious instinct.

I grew up in a big family -- 12 kids -- in which books were semi-sacred, each one a bit of a secular bible. Books were the Answer, the Keys to the Kingdom, the way in and the way out. Our house was full of books, and we all read.

My father sat up late to smoke and drink beer and read in peace. My mother got up early to smoke and drink Pepsi and read in peace.

I have a little sister who spent her entire childhood in her bedroom, reading books. We met for the first time, I believe, when she was about 12 and came out to go to the bathroom.

I have an older brother who would flip books at me as he walked by and say, "This one's good." That's how I discovered Steinbeck and Bradbury.

Our parents filled a couple of walls with books and encouraged us to read them all, even the ones with dirty words.

But to write in a book?

That would be like an Irish monk jotting down his grocery list in the Book of Kells.

Apart from notions of reverence, however, books in our family were simply too communal to be scribbled in like private diaries. The paperback copy of Exodus by Leon Uris that I was reading might already have been read by my parents, a few sisters and a couple of brothers. And when I had finished it, another brother or sister might pick it up.

It was hard enough just to keep a book from falling apart.

In the summer before I started the eighth grade, I read a worn-out paperback copy of The Grapes of Wrath. I read it in my bedroom, in the living room, in the bathroom, walking up and down stairs, under a tree, late at night, early in the morning, before cutting the grass, after playing baseball, under a porch light and while watching "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

And when I got to the last page, I discovered there was no last page -- it had fallen out.

I walked over to Western Avenue and rode a bus two miles to Evergreen Plaza, where I stood in a bookstore and read the last page.

I called Studs last week. I told him that though he would not know it, he taught me how to read a book.

"Oh, yeah?" he said with a laugh. "Well, there's no one way, you know. Everybody finds his own way. I do that, though, yeah -- I mark it up without thinking about it."

I asked Studs if I could borrow one of those books -- one that he had really marked up -- to show to my readers.

"Yeah, sure," he said. "Why not. I'll find something."

But when I showed up at Studs' house in Uptown the next morning, the book he gave me was not one he had read, but one he had written -- Division Street:

Fortunately, he had marked it up thoroughly the night before, while putting together a new lesson for me.

"The other book you wanted, that's good pictorially," he said, "but this is much more important."

And what was that lesson?

I can't begin to tell you in the space I have left here, except to say that 95-year-old Studs, sitting in his bathrobe at his dining room table, talked to me about what first drove him to listen to and record all the different voices of America.

All his life, he said, he has been "fascinated by the connections" -- those ways of thinking and feeling that people from different worlds, when things go right, discover they share.

"But I'm not being pollyannish," he added. "You get the opposite, too."

I took notes, and one of these days I'll write more about what Studs said -- I won't wait 15 years.

But if you read enough, you already know: It's all about making connections.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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