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Studs Terkel on the Dignity of Work, Why We Do What We Do, and the Extraordinary Dreams of Ordinary People

A humbling oral history of our search for meaning, mattering, and a sense of worth.

Studs Terkel on the Dignity of Work, Why We Do What We Do, and the Extraordinary Dreams of Ordinary People

“I work in a state of passion and compulsion,” the great painter Juan Miró wrote in his reflections on art and the creative process. But to do so-called creative work at all is, in the words of poet Sarah Kay, “an immense privilege”; to let your life speak is a luxury. The vast majority of people in the history of humanity, as well as in the world at this particular point in time, have been compelled to work not by passion but by practicality: by the necessity for food, shelter, and survival. And yet even such work — often manual, sometimes seemingly meaningless to the outside observer, lacking in the trifecta of autonomy, mastery, and purpose that psychologists believe marks meaningful work — can be a tremendous source of dignity, pride, and integrity.

That’s what legendary interviewer, writer, radio broadcaster, and oral historian Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912–October 31, 2008) captures in Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (public library) — a remarkable oral history of “the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people” and of working life in the 1970s, an era of radical change at once profoundly different and strikingly similar to our own. A generation after the Mad Men era but before we had plummeted into the Mad Machines one, that was a time of reckoning with the demise of the old, slower, inescapably human culture of work and the birth of the new, machine-assisted, often machine-driven age of productivity.

Studs Terkel at the studio
Studs Terkel at the studio

From bookbinders to miners to waitresses to firefighters, Terkel’s people speak to some of the most elemental and universal longings of the human heart through the particulars of their experience — the daily trials of making do; the pride in a task, however simple, performed with skill and care; the yearning to matter, to make a difference, to count for something.

Terkel frames his inquiry with his characteristic uncottoned acuity:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

The scars, psychic as well as physical, brought home to the supper table and the TV set, may have touched, malignantly, the soul of our society.


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; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.

Illustration from Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon

Terkel senses in his subjects “more than a slight ache” about the longing for a day’s work to provide more than a paycheck — to provide a measure of meaning. A Brooklyn firefighter named Tom Patrick goes to the heart of the matter — the paradox of worth in a world of bad news, abstract accomplishments, and intangible goals:

The fuckin’ world’s so fucked up, the country’s fucked up. But the firemen, you actually see them produce. You see them put out a fire. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy’s dying. You can’t get around that shit. That’s real. To me, that’s what I want to be. “I worked in a bank. You know, it’s just paper. It’s not real. Nine to five and it’s shit. You’re lookin’ at numbers. But I can look back and say, “I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.” It shows something I did on this earth.

The tangibility of one’s work need not be of the life-saving variety to count — lest we forget, we live in a world where countless interdependent skills conspire to craft something as simple as a pencil. A 37-year-old steel mill laborer named Mike Lefevre — a self-described “dying breed” doing “strictly muscle work” — tells Terkel:

You remember when a guy could point to a house he built, how many logs he stacked. He built it and he was proud of it. I don’t really think I could be proud if a contractor built a home for me… ’Cause I would have to be part of it, you know. It’s hard to take pride in a bridge you’re never gonna cross, in a door you’re never gonna open. You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result of it.

Illustration by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes

He steps back to consider the broader perspective:

It’s not just the work. Somebody built the pyramids. Somebody’s going to build something. Pyramids, Empire State Building — these things just don’t happen. There’s hard work behind it. I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” Picasso can point to a painting… A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to.

A woman named Donna Murray, who became an accidental bookbinder after inheriting her father’s large collection of books that needed repairing and spent the next quarter century binding books for private clients and institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago, tells Terkel:

Obviously I don’t make much money binding books, but it’s very cozy work… I usually arrive at about ten thirty. I work as long as it pleases me. If I fill up the table and the books are oiled, I often leave at four or six. I might work for one client two or three weeks.

Art by John Alcorn for BOOKS! by Murray McCain, a vintage love letter to books and how they’re made

One of the most beautiful emanations from Terkel’s interviews is the way in which the sheer attentiveness to the manual work seeds convictions about the larger significance of the work in its cultural context — something the bookbinder captures perfectly:

You must be very clever with a binding and give it the dignity it deserves. Because the pages are so full of stunning, fantastic things that say, This is life… I only enjoy working on books that say something. I know this is an anathema to people who insist on preserving books that are only going to be on the shelves forever — or on coffee tables. Books are for people to read, and that’s that. I think books are for the birds unless people read them.


I feel very strongly about every book I pick up. It’s like something alive or — or decadent, death. I wouldn’t for one moment bind Mein Kampf, because I think it’s disgusting to waste time on such an obscenity.


Books are things that keep us going… Keeping a four-hundred-year-old book together keeps that spirit alive. It’s an alluring kind of thing, lovely, because you know that belongs to us. Because a book is a life.

Terkel’s most poignant and pause-giving conversation is with a 34-year-old farm laborer and organizer named Roberto Acuna — one of the migrant lettuce workers who inspired Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Born on a cotton sack in the fields because his mother couldn’t afford to go to the hospital and literally imprinted by his work — both thumbnails on his callused hands are singularly cut, as lettuce-pickers’ thumbnails fall of from being banged on the box over and over — this young man’s entire life was marked by inordinate daily struggle for survival, and yet his hardship only amplified his idealism. After witnessing and experiencing first-hand the appalling inequality between the crop growers and the farm workers — “Growers can have an intricate watering system to irrigate their crops but they can’t have running water inside the houses of workers,” he tells Terkel. “Veterinarians tend to the needs of domestic animals but they can’t have medical care for the workers.” — he went on to become an advocate for migrant workers’ rights in a heartening testament to the notion that the best way to complain is to do something constructive to change the conditions seeding the complaint.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Migrant by Maxine Trottier

Acuna tells Terkel:

I walked out of the fields two years ago. I saw the need to change the California feudal system, to change the lives of farm workers, to make these huge corporations feel they’re not above anybody.


The things I saw shaped my life. I remember when we used to go out and pick carrots and onions, the whole family. We tried to scratch a livin’ out of the ground. I saw my parents cry out in despair, even though we had the whole family working. At the time, they were paying sixty-two and a half cents an hour. The average income must have been fifteen hundred dollars, maybe two thousand… We’d go into the tent where Mom was sleeping and I’d see her crying. When I asked her why she was crying she never gave me an answer. All she said was things would get better. She retired a beaten old lady with a lot of dignity. That day she thought would be better never came for her.


Nobody knows the erosion of man’s dignity. They used to have a label of canned goods that said, “U.S. Commodities. Not to be sold or exchanged.” Nobody knows how proud it is to feel when you bought canned goods with your own money.

Indeed, a deep sense of pride permeates Acuna’s recollections of his early life — pride, and a grounding reminder that it isn’t poverty itself that erodes dignity but the contempt and derision aimed at the poor:

I’d go barefoot to school. The bad thing was they used to laugh at us, the Anglo kids. They would laugh because we’d bring tortillas and frijoles to lunch. They would have their nice little compact lunch boxes with cold milk in their thermos and they’d laugh at us because all we had was dried tortillas.

He recounts one particularly heartbreaking incident:

I wanted to be accepted. It must have been in sixth grade. It was just before the Fourth of July. They were trying out students for this patriotic play. I wanted to do Abe Lincoln, so I learned the Gettysburg Address inside and out. I’d be out in the fields pickin’ the crops and I’d be memorizin’. I was the only one who didn’t have to read the part, ’cause I learned it. The part was given to a girl who was a grower’s daughter. She had to read it out of a book, but they said she had better diction. I was very disappointed. I quit about eighth grade.

Acuna, who started picking crops when he was eight, reflects on the bigotry that resulted from the acute mismatch of realities — the rift between what he and his family experienced as the basic fabric of their lives, and what those in power assumed to be the givens of every life:

We used to work early, about four o‘clock in the morning. We’d pick the harvest until about six. Then we’d run home and get into our supposedly clean clothes and run all the way to school because we’d be late. By the time we got to school, we’d be all tuckered out. Around maybe eleven o’clock, we’d be dozing off. Our teachers would send notes to the house telling Mom that we were inattentive…

School would end maybe four o’clock. We’d rush home again, change clothes, go back to work until seven, seven thirty at night. That’s not counting the weekends. On Saturday and Sunday, we’d be there from four thirty in the morning until about seven thirty in the evening. This is where we made the money, those two days. We all worked.

He joined the Marine Corps at seventeen with mixed feelings and then got a job as a correctional officer in a state prison. In a sentiment that calls to mind Viktor Frankl’s ennobling conviction that even when everything is taken from us, we still have moral choice as our most important and most indelible freedom, Acuna reflects on his prison job:

I quit after eight months because I couldn’t take the misery I saw. They wanted me to use a rubber hose on some of the prisoners — mostly Chicanos and blacks. I couldn’t do it. They called me chicken-livered because I didn’t want to hit nobody. They constantly harassed me after that. I didn’t quit because I was afraid of them but because they were trying to make me into a mean man.

Acuna draws a parallel to the condition of migrant workers:

Working in the fields is not in itself a degrading job. It’s hard, but if you’re given regular hours, better pay, decent housing, unemployment and medical compensation, pension plans — we have a very relaxed way of living. But the growers don’t recognize us as persons. That’s the worst thing, the way they treat you.

The solution, he suggests, must be a systemic one. It begins with helping people at the receiving end of the food chain — people like you and me — open our eyes to the daily indignities by which the food at our table is produced. He tells Terkel:

If we had proper compensation we wouldn’t have to be working seventeen hours a day and following the crops. We could stay in one area and it would give us roots. Being a migrant, it tears the family apart. You get in debt. You leave the area penniless. The children are the ones hurt the most. They go to school three months in one place and then on to another. No sooner do they make friends, they are uprooted again. Right here, your childhood is taken away.


If people could see — in the winter, ice on the fields. We’d be on our knees all day long. We’d build fires and warm up real fast and go back onto the ice. We’d be picking watermelons in 105 degrees all day long. When people have melons or cucumber or carrots or lettuce, they don’t know how they got on their table and the consequences to the people who picked it. If I had enough money, I would take busloads of people out to the fields and into the labor camps. Then they’d know how that fine salad got on their table.

Working is a sobering and, in an unexpected way, enormously elevating read in its totality — a record of daily dignity even amid the most trying of circumstances. Complement it with a very different perspective on the psychology of work, then revisit Terkel’s wonderful conversation with Maurice Sendak about the eternal child in each of us.


Steinbeck and the Difficult Art of the Friend Breakup

“I can’t consider you a friend when out of every contact there comes some intentionally wounding thing.”

“A friend,” wrote the poet and philosopher John O’Donohue in his beautiful meditation on the Ancient Celtic notion of anam cara, “awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.” But what happens when a friendship ceases to magnify your spirit and instead demands that you be a smaller version of yourself? While David Whyte is absolutely right in that “all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness,” there comes a point past which granting forgiveness yet again for the same hurtful behavior becomes not an act of moral strength but one of moral weakness — an exercise in self-mutilation in the unwillingness to relinquish what has metastasized into a draining or even abusive relationship.

That’s what John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) confronted in his mid-thirties as his friendship with George Albee, another young writer, grew increasingly strained by Albee’s professional jealousy. Things came to a head in early 1938 when a young woman Steinbeck had known since childhood accused him of getting her pregnant; although the accusation appears false by biographical accounts, Steinbeck found himself in the midst of a maelstrom he described as one of the most trying times of his life.

When he was most in need of support from his loved ones, he learned that Albee had been speaking ill of him instead of sticking up for him. The disloyalty wounded Steinbeck deeply and he distanced himself from his former friend. Albee eventually sensed the cooling of the relationship and pressed for an answer.

In a masterwork of the friend breakup, found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) — which also gave us the Nobel laureate’s terrific advice on falling in love in a missive to his teenage son — Steinbeck finally confronts Albee:

Dear George:

The reason for your suspicion is well founded. This has been a difficult and unpleasant time. There has been nothing good about it. In this time my friends have rallied around, all except you. Every time there has been a possibility of putting a bad construction on anything I have done, you have put such a construction.

Some kind friend has told me about it every time you have stabbed me in the back and that whether I wanted to know it or not. I didn’t want to know it really. If such things had been reported as coming from more than one person it would be easy to discount the whole thing but there has been only one source. Now I know that such things grow out of an unhappiness in you and for a long time I was able to reason so and to keep on terms of some kind of amicability. But gradually I found I didn’t trust you at all, and when I knew that then I couldn’t be around you any more. It became obvious that anything I said or did in your presence or wrote to you would be warped viciously and repeated and then the repetition was repeated to me and the thing was just too damned painful. I tried to sidestep, just to fade out of your picture. But that doesn’t work either.

I’d like to be friends with you, George, but I can’t if I have to wear a mail shirt the whole time. I wish to God your unhappiness could find some other outlet. But I can’t consider you a friend when out of every contact there comes some intentionally wounding thing. This has been the most difficult time in my life.

I’ve needed help and trust and the benefit of the doubt, because I’ve tried to beat the system which destroys every writer, and from you have come only wounds and kicks in the face. And that is the reason and I think you always knew it was the reason.


Apparently unsatisfied with having made the point too implicitly, Steinbeck sums it up in an explicit postscript:

And now if you want to quarrel, it will at least be an honest quarrel and not boudoir pin pricking.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Let’s Be Enemies by Janice May Udry

Some days later, still stewing over the situation, Steinbeck writes to his literary agent and lifelong friend Elizabeth Otis:

Unpleasant thing. I finally broke open the thing with George. At least now if he wants to quarrel it won’t be lady quarreling. I feel better about that, but I don’t like such things at all.

A few weeks later, Steinbeck writes in his diary in lamenting the dark side of his success:

People I liked have changed… I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me.

When asked about the fallout, Richard Albee, George’s brother, reflects:

You may be sure that the basic cause was artistic jealousy, and of course it was on the part of George, not John.

Indeed, few things erode the mutual dignity of a friendship more effectively than the petty jealousies of competitiveness. But just a few weeks later, in a testament to Kierkegaard’s observation that creative work is the only antidote to the embitterment of such petty jealousies, Steinbeck embarked upon the greatest creative labor of his life, the fruits of which earned him his first Pulitzer Prize the following year and became the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize two decades later.

Complement Steinbeck: A Life in Letters — which is thoroughly satisfying in its totality, full of the beloved writer’s wisdom on literature and life — with Steinbeck on creative integrity, discipline and self-doubt, the joy of writing by hand, and his prophetic dream about how the commercial media machine is killing creative culture, then revisit Andrew Sullivan on why true friendship can be a greater gift than romantic love.


The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: A Trailblazing Exploration of Consciousness, Memory, and How Our Sense of Self Arises

“This is the very essence of memory: its self-referential base, its self-consciousness, ever evolving and ever changing, intrinsically dynamic and subjective.”

The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: A Trailblazing Exploration of Consciousness, Memory, and How Our Sense of Self Arises

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf lamented. “Looked at, it vanishes.” A century later, we may have rendered the notion of the soul unfashionable — arguably, to our own detriment — but the puzzlement at the heart of Woolf’s observation hasn’t left us. If anything, we’ve recontextualized it as the problem of consciousness and taken it to the neuroscience lab, where it has only grown more perplexing — for, as Marilynne Robinson observed in her magnificent meditation on consciousness, the usefulness of the soul, and the limits of neuroscience, “on scrutiny the physical is as elusive as anything to which a name can be given.”

One of the finest, most dimensional explorations of consciousness comes from mathematician turned physician and writer Israel Rosenfield in his 1992 masterwork The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness (public library) — a trailblazing inquiry into the nature and structure of consciousness, and one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books.

Israel Rosenfield (Photograph: Catherine Temerson)
Israel Rosenfield (Photograph: Catherine Temerson)

Rosenfield, whom Dr. Sacks rightly celebrated as “a powerful and original thinker,” contextualizes what makes the question of consciousness so alluring yet so mystifying:

What we say and do often hides motives that we keep from others and even from ourselves. Modern psychology began when this observation, as old as the writing of history, was turned into a principle: that our thoughts and actions are to a great extent determined by ideas, memories, and drives that are unconscious and inaccessible to conscious thought; that unknowable forces determine our actions. Thus the study of the unconscious became the cornerstone of twentieth-century psychology. Consciousness itself was ignored, since after all elucidating the unconscious seemed to tell us so much. People came to presume that when they talked of their “memories,” they meant experiences and learning that were carefully stored away in their brains and could be brought into consciousness, or made conscious. But this was to ignore the possibility that memories were in fact part of the very structure of consciousness: not only can there be no such thing as a memory without there being consciousness, but consciousness and memory are in a certain sense inseparable, and understanding one requires understanding the other.


Human memory may be unlike anything we have thus far imagined or successfully built a model for. And consciousness may be the reason why.

One of the most remarkable aspects of consciousness, Rosenfield points out, is “its utter subjectivity, the uniqueness of each individual human perspective.” This makes our capacity for empathy an extraordinary feat, for it requires that we acknowledge the subjectivity of our own reality and accommodate that of another, and yet we remain by and large entrapped in our subjectivity. As the great physicist David Bohm memorably articulated the problem, “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.”

Rosenfield captures this paradox:

In this subjectivity, oddly, we nonetheless feel or believe we are experiencing the objective truth about the world, and we call that knowledge; we usually think of knowledge as something that can be understood and also transmitted from one person to another.

Art by Tove Jansson for a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But this, Rosenfield cautions, seeds one of our gravest misconceptions about consciousness — the expectation that it is contained in specific units of knowledge or records, so to speak, of sensory experience, stored in particular areas of the brain. Although scientists have shown that specific brain tissues do respond to stimuli like shape, color, and motion, and neuroscience has made tremendous strides in the quarter-century since the book was published, Rosenfield’s critique of the broader limitations of such neurophysiological hunts for the seedbed of consciousness remains remarkably astute:

If one thinks about the ordinary human experience of being conscious, of being aware and alert to the meaning of one’s ongoing experiences, it seems unlikely that perceptions become conscious by these re-creations or representations in the brain, however complex they are supposed to be. This notion presupposes a static model of brain function; but consciousness has a temporal flow, a continuity over time, that cannot be accounted for by the neuroscientists’ claim that specific parts of the brain are responding to the presence of particular stimuli at a given moment. Our perceptions are part of a “stream of consciousness,” part of a continuity of experience that the neuroscientific models and descriptions fail to capture; their categories of color, say, or smell, or sound, or motion are discrete entities independent of time. But … a sense of consciousness comes precisely from the flow of perceptions, from the relations among them (both spatial and temporal), from the dynamic but constant relation to them as governed by one unique personal perspective sustained throughout a conscious life; this dynamic sense of consciousness eludes the neuroscientists’ analyses. Compared to it, units of “knowledge” such as we can transmit or record in books or images are but instant snapshots taken in a dynamic flow of uncontainable, unrepeatable, and inexpressible experience. And it is an unwarranted mistake to associate these snapshots with material “stored” in the brain.

This dynamic dimension of consciousness — or what Sarah Manguso has so beautifully termed “ongoingness” — is why our various experiences of time are so integral to our very humanity; it is how we’re able to transmute information into wisdom; it is ultimately what makes us superior to computers. Rosenfield writes:

Conscious perception is temporal: the continuity of consciousness derives from the correspondence which the brain establishes from moment to moment. Without this activity of connecting, we would merely perceive a sequence of unrelated stimuli from moment to unrelated moment, and we would be unable to transform this experience into knowledge and understanding of the world. This is why conscious human knowledge is so different from the “knowledge” that can be stored in a machine or in a computer.

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

What powers this continuity of consciousness is memory, that seedbed of our identity, and its dot-connecting capacity (which, lest we forget, is also the seedbed of creativity, perhaps the ultimate faculty that distinguishes us — so far — from machines). Rosenfield explains:

Conscious memory, like all conscious acts, is and has to be relational, and the nature of the relation is different from that in direct perception, although direct perception depends on it. The vital ingredient is self-awareness. My memory emerges from the relation between my body (more specifically, my bodily sensation at a given moment) and my brain’s “image” of my body (an unconscious activity in which the brain creates a constantly changing generalized idea of the body by relating the changes in bodily sensations from moment to moment.) It is this relation that creates a sense of self; over time, my body’s relation to its surroundings becomes even more complex, and, with it, the nature of myself and of my memories of it deepen and widen, too. When I look at myself in a mirror, my recognition of myself is based on a dynamic and complicated awareness of self, a memory-laden sense of who I am. It is not that my memories exist as stored images in my brain, conscious or unconscious; the act of memory is one of my relating to myself, or to others, or to past experiences, or to previously perceived stimuli. This is the very essence of memory: its self-referential base, its self-consciousness, ever evolving and ever changing, intrinsically dynamic and subjective. Indeed, perception in general, conscious awareness of one’s surroundings, is always from a particular point of view, and is only possible when the brain creates a body image, a self, as a frame of reference.

This experience of a cohesive self is also why wee are so profoundly disoriented by inner contradiction and conflict. But however trying such dissonance may be to our understanding of ourselves, the very capacity for it is what makes us human:

Confusion and understanding are aspects of conscious behavior, indeed they are states of consciousness, suggesting very different sets of relations between the individual and the world, and there is no way to grasp what they are without some idea of what we mean by consciousness. Computers, for example, which lack consciousness, do not become confused when they arrive at contradictory conclusions or when part of their “memory” is lost; it might also be said that they never “understand” what they are doing.

Art by Arthur Rackham from his revolutionary 1907 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Rosenfield returns to the central role of memory in our sense of understanding — the world as well as ourselves:

Without memory we could never know what we have learned. The problem is that we have tended to think of memories as unconscious items that one brings to consciousness, not as part of consciousness.


Nor can we understand the unconscious processes of the brain without understanding consciousness. Our knowledge of the unconscious is derived from observations of conscious behavior, after all. The problem is analogous to the famous discussion in physic as to the nature of light: is it made up of particles or waves? With measuring devices that are sensitive to waves (interference gratings, for example), light manifests itself as waves; with measuring devices sensitive to particles (photoelectric cells), light manifests itself as particles. So is light particle or wave? It is neither; it is simply that we see it as one or the other, depending on the measuring apparatus. So, too, our conscious life suggests that we have memories stored in our brains, but when we try to find where or how they are stored we fail to find the traces of them, and some aspects of our mental life (dreams, for example) suggest that conscious and unconscious forms of memory may be quite different. Actually they are both part of a larger structure, and they manifest themselves in very different ways, depending on our circumstances. An essential part of that larger structure is consciousness.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten, Rosenfield goes on to explore how phenomena like time, language, and personality elucidate the mysteries of consciousness. Complement it with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity, naturalist Sy Montgomery on how earth’s most alien creature illuminates the wonders of consciousness, and a beautiful animated short film about memory, inspired by Oliver Sacks.


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