Working – a book review

As part of my research for this blog, I picked up a copy of Stud’s Terkel’s 1974 book “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” I figured if I was going to write about people’s careers, I should investigate how a master journalist took on a similar topic.

More than 40 years after its publication, this book is certainly dated. At times, a sort of “Mad Men” vibe came through. I kept picturing people in period clothing – office men in suits and hats, female secretaries in modest dresses, everyone smoking on the job or during breaks.

I don’t mean to say the book is irrelevant. It continues to influence pop culture, journalism, the labor movement, and sociology.

“Working” has been made into a musical and a graphic novel. It has inspired podcasts and magazine articles.

The 762-page book took longer to read than I anticipated, in part because it was sometimes hard for me to “get into” the book. There is no narrative arc here, just the 133 start-and-stop stories of each individual chapter, each individual working life.

As I got further into the book, all those people started to get into my head. I would start to visualize this din, the murmur of all those stories being told simultaneously. I connected their past experiences to my current experiences, to current events.

There is a lot contained in those stories – a lot to think about and process.

A New York Times review printed at the time of the book’s publication reflects my feeling about the book:

One of the difficulties with this book is that Terkel loads us down with so much exciting and problematic material, but himself does hardly anything to help us assimilate and integrate it all. There are individual sections, small clusters, that stick together very well- interviews with three auto workers in the same shop near the beginning, a section on “Fathers and Sons” at the end- but little coherence in between. He is like some sort of magician or genie, bringing an incredible abundance of marvelous beings before our eyes, yet as soon as we reach out to grasp at any one, he whisks it away from us and replaces it with another and another, in dizzying and exhausting succession. It may sound ungrateful to complain of a superabundance of exciting material. This is not exactly the problem. What the book needs is a more active intelligence, giving some sort of structure and coherence to the marvelous material.

I would argue that the needed “active intelligence” is provided by the reader. It’s work to read “Working.”

Every person will get something different out of the book.

To quote a line of Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi’s poetry (shared by a friend of mine on social media this morning):

Judge a moth by the beauty of its candle.

And so, below, I quote a few of the places in which my motivations for starting this blog connected with the book. I’d encourage you to read the book for yourself, see what resonates with you.


The struggle of figuring out what you want to DO with your life:

Sharon Atkins, receptionist: “I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t know where to go to find out. I’ve been fostered so long by school and didn’t have time to think about it.”

Fred Roman, auditor: “When I was in high school, I thought I’d be an engineer. So I took math, chemistry, physics, and got my D’s. I thought of being a history major. Then I said, ‘What will I do with a degree in history?’ I thought of poli sci. I thought most about going into law. I still think about that. I chose accounting for a very poor reason. I eliminated everything else.”

Discrimination against women in the working world:

Jill Torrance, model: “I don’t look down at secretaries. Most are talented women who could do better jobs than their bosses probably, but will never get the chance – because they’re women.”

Roberta Victor, hooker: “As a bright, assertive woman, I had no power. As a cold, manipulative hustler, I had a lot.”

Barbara Herrick, writer/producer: “On first meeting, I’m frequently taken for the secretary, you know, traveling with the boss. I’m here to keep somebody happy.”

How job affects social status:

Pauline Kael, film critic: “Movies set up these glamorized occupations. When people find they are waitresses, they feel degraded. No kid will say I want to be a waiter, I want to run a cleaning establishment. There is a tendency in movies to degrade people if they don’t have white-collar professions. So people form a low self-image of themselves, because their lives can never match the way Americans live – on the screen.”

Nancy Rogers, bank teller: “One of the girls said, ‘People who go through four years of college should have it recognized that they have achieved something.’ A man said, ‘Don’t you think someone who becomes an auto mechanic and is good at it should also be recognized? He’s a specialist, too, like the man who goes to be a doctor.’ Yet he’s not thought of that way. What difference?”

Ruth Lindstrom, baby nurse: “When I first came to this country, being a maid was a low caliber person. I never felt that way. I felt if you could be useful and do an honest job, that was not a disgrace.”

Kitty Scanlan, occupational therapist, who took a leave from her job and worked as a waitress: “It put my life back in perspective for me. I pretend being assistant professor’s a big deal. I fell into this status trap because people do act impressed. I’m no different when I’m waitressing than I am as an assistant professor.”

The search for meaning in work:

Studs Terkel, in the introduction to the book: “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.”

Nora Watson, editor “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”

Rip Torn, actor: “You work out of necessity, but in your work, you gotta have a little artistry too.”

Barbara Terwilliger, independently wealthy: “Everyone needs to feel that they have a place in the world. It would be unbearable not to. I don’t like to feel superfluous. One needs to be needed. I’m saying being idle and leisured, doing nothing, is tragic and disgraceful. Everyone must have an occupation. Love doesn’t suffice. It doesn’t fill up enough hours. I don’t mean work must be activity for activity’s sake. I don’t mean obsessive, empty moving around. I mean creating something new. But idleness is an evil. I don’t think man can maintain his balance or sanity in idleness. Human beings must work to create some coherence.”

Kay Stepkin, director of bakery cooperative: “Work is an essential part of being alive. Your work is your identity. It tells you who you are. It’s gotten so abstract. People don’t work for the sake of working. They’re working for a car, a new house, or a vacation. It’s not the work itself that’s important to them. There’s such a joy in doing work well.”

Nick Lindsay, carpenter/poet: “Any work, you kneel down, it’s a kind of worship. It’s part of the holiness of things, work, yes. Just like drawing breath is. It’s necessary. If you don’t breathe, you’re dead. It’s kind of a sacrament, too.”

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