Books That Shaped Work in America

December 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Via Atticus Books, the U.S. Department of Labor, of all places, in conjunction with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, is putting together a working list of Books That Shaped Work in America.

It is fascinating to toggle through the titles compiled so far, which range in theme from the struggle to find one’s footing in industrial America (The Jungle, On the Waterfront; How the Other Half Lives) to portrayals of modern office hell (The Devil Wears Prada) to indictments of race and class warfare (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help) to the science of labor and getting ahead (Studs Terkel’s Working, How to Win Friends and Influence People). Children’s titles are not forgotten, from Mo Willems to the MacGuffie Reader, nor are plays (Death of a Salesman, August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle).

A few are perhaps questionable: Peggy Noonan’s tribute to Ronald Reagan seems like a waggish commentary on the subject, and I have no idea how The Guinness Book of World Records fits into the conversation. Fortunately, it is meant to be a working list, and there’s a form for people to suggest their own additions.

I haven’t submitted any, but here are a few that come to mind:

  • Post Office (or Factotum), Charles Bukowski: protrayals of drudgery of the working stiff in which the individual is a meaningless cog with no motivation for responsibility
  • Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill: a collection that includes the short story on which the film Secretary was based, a stark take on subordination in both work and sex
  • The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells: one of the first looks at entrepreneurship and the efforts of new wealth to fit in 19th c. America
  • The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen
  • Ragged Dick, Horatio Alger (although Mark the Match-Boy is already represented)
  • John Updike’s Rabbit series: A biased choice, I realize, but a portrayal of a man moving up in the ranks primarily due primarily to marrying the boss’s daughter
  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton: a story of obsolescence and the fight to stand up for one’s work in the machine age
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford: an argument for reinvestment in craftmanship skills in an age that strives to insulate us from how things work
  • Microserfs, Douglas Coupland: one of the first office-as-cubicle-hell novels (a precursor to Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End), perhaps not eligible since Coupland is Canadian.

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