10 Best Books About Work Update 05/2022

A popular type of book in China is a book about a person who works at a place where people work. The most popular has sold 5m copies and is called Du Lala’s Promotion Diary: it combines soap-opera twists with career advice of the machiavellian kind (“If your boss makes a pass at you, smile and flirt back”) to tell the story of a secretary rising to the position of HR manager. But this isn’t a genre you’ll find in Britain. In the books I read, I didn’t think much about work until I moved to London to find a job. The novels that spoke to me of love and betrayal and the unique color of a Cornish sky didn’t talk about politics of tea-making or the pleasures and duties of work. Do these books?

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel

Terkel’s huge oral history of work in the 1970s starts with four epigraphs. “You can’t eat for eight hours a day, drink for eight hours a day, or make love for eight hours a day. All you can do for eight hours a day is work.” Which is why man is so miserable and unhappy for himself and everyone else, too. I particularly love the interviews with the paperboys, the ad executives, the Lordstown welders and the lettuce pickers, but the book is inexhaustible.

All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work by Barbara Garson

It was in the 1970s, and Garson hung out outside factory gates all over the U.S. to talk to the people who made ping-pong paddles, canned tuna, and bottled lip gloss. Garson asks one tuna-fish canner if she talks to the other women around her all day. “No, I don’t think so,” she says. Do you work all day? “I think.” “What do you think about when you’re asleep?” “What about sex?” Her boyfriend said, “I think that’s my fault.” “No, it’s not you,” she said. A tuna fish is what’s wrong with this person.

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval

Saval, who is an editor for n+1 magazine by day, wrote a very interesting history of the office last year. Bartleby, the Scrivener is a short story by Melville that was published in 1853. The clerk says politely, “I would rather not,” when asked to proofread a document. Saval then talks about the rise of the female typist and how the skyscraper changed what an office could or should be, all the way up to the partitioned cubicle and the hot desks of today.

Life As We Have Known It edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies

Virginia and Leonard Woolf first published these stories of working women’s lives at their Hogarth Press in 1931. They did this with the help of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, which was a group of women who worked together. In the preface, Virginia talks about how she felt uncomfortable at a meeting of working women because she thought she was a middle-class visitor who could only show a fake kind of sympathy. She thinks the stories remind her of “those unknown writers before the birth of Shakespeare who never left their own parishes.” They also have “qualities even as literature that the literate and educated might envy.”

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

Yes, the three sisters who were left without a father are always talking about work. There was a play last year by Anya Reiss at the Southwark Playhouse called “Sweat Work, Real Work.” Olga and Irina started the play by writing on their exercise books. The last act has worn Irina down: “One day, it will all make sense. I’m sure of it.” It will all make sense. Then there won’t be any secrets, and there will be no mystery about it because we’ll all know the reason why. Even if we have to work and live now.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

How does Hardy pay attention to farming as we follow Tess from Alec’s estate to the dairy farm where she falls in love with Angel Clare, the parson’s son? Tess is at work in the milking parlour. “There was for a time no talk in the barton, and not a sound was heard except a brief exclamation to one of the animals requesting her to turn around or stand still,” says the text.

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

Ullswater Press has an editor in chief in 1954 named Nancy Hawkins, and she is in charge of the newspaper. When it rains, sandwiches are sent out and eaten with office-made coffee, Ivy the typist never stops, a raincoat-clad man from the (unpaid) printer stares up from the street all week, manuscripts pile up on Mrs Hawkins’ desk, and sherry is poured out at 5.30pm. The office clock is “unreliable.” Because I want to walk into the office of Ullswater Press, of course I want to do that.

The Crofter and the Laird: Life on a Hebridean Island by John McPhee

At some point in the late 1960s, New Yorker reporter John McPhee moved to the Outer Hebrides with his wife and four young daughters “for a while.” His great-grandfather had fled there after the Highland clearances. He goes lobster fishing, fixes fences, kills gulls, and records the lives of the people who live on the island. He goes with the crofters when they hand over the rent for the year. This is what he does. The laird sits in the inn, pressing the tenants to accept a dram of either whisky or sherry. Among other things, one tenant said, “You drank your whisky – “a drop of yourself,” as Skye men say.”

At the Works by Florence Bell

With her stepdaughter (who would become explorer Gertrude Bell), Bell started going to the terraces of Middlesbrough steelworkers. Gertrude Bell would go on to become an explorer, too. The result is this book, which is a picture of working life after the Industrial Revolution. It takes three days for a flannel shirt to fall apart, men fall into the furnace, and work has to stop while body parts are found. Lunch is brought in a bucket and put on the cooling pig iron to keep warm.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Doctor Gordon’s private hospital is where the second half of the book takes place. The first part of the book takes place in a magazine intern’s home in New York City. When Esther Greenwood says that, she means that she was supposed to be having the time of her life. Errands and assignments are done. Plain vodka is drunk, long, hot baths are taken, and lunch with famous poets who eat with their fingers is had, as well. It talks about the first time you meet people who are different, appealing, and rough when you start working.

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