What are some texts about work?
September 15, 2010 1:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for good books (or movies, poems, plays, songs, etc.) that have to do with work - any and all kinds of workplaces and kinds of labour. Work doesn't have to be the exclusive concern, but it should be an important part.

I'm thinking of texts like Death of a Salesman, Under the Feet of Jesus, Roger & Me, the work of Studs Terkel, etc. Work is where most people spend most of their time, but who's telling stories about it? Fiction or non, literature or pulp, contemporary or classic: what books bring the reader into a world of work in a compelling way?
posted by Bergamot to Writing & Language (49 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Then We Came to The End (Fantastic, Catch-22 in an ad agency in Chicago)
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:57 PM on September 15, 2010

How about In Praise of Idleness? By Mr. Idler himself, Bertrand Russell.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:57 PM on September 15, 2010

The Apartment starring Jack Lemmon.
posted by Melismata at 2:00 PM on September 15, 2010

Toads and Toads Revisited by Philip Larkin.
posted by fire&wings at 2:01 PM on September 15, 2010

The Jungle
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:04 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you care for the the mid-19th century, I'd recommend Bartleby, (A/The) Scrivener.
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:04 PM on September 15, 2010

The Smithsonian Folkways Children's Music Collection has a great song about working in a coal mine, preceded by a snippet of some schoolchilren interviewing an old coal miner. Helpfully, the song is called "Hey, Coal Miner."
posted by not that girl at 2:10 PM on September 15, 2010

In the songs department, you can't do better than the polar opposites 16 Tons and King of the Road.
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:10 PM on September 15, 2010

posted by Logophiliac at 2:11 PM on September 15, 2010

Slab Rat, Something Happened, Microserfs, JPod, Devil Wears Prada. But really there aren't all that many: great workplace novels are thin on the ground. And many of the ones that are there are set in "cool" workplaces like publishing and advertising.

Barbarians at the Gate, Liar's Poker and the Big Short are all very gripping non-fiction narratives about work and business.
posted by rhymer at 2:11 PM on September 15, 2010

Devo does Working In a Coal Mine too - your choice :-).
And, oh yeah.
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:16 PM on September 15, 2010

I haven't read Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, but it comes highly recommended, and it immediately came to mind reading your question.
posted by domakesaypat at 2:17 PM on September 15, 2010

I've always been a fan of James Thurber's story "The Catbird Seat" :)

And, of course, Office Space and The Office (both versions), as well as The IT Crowd.

Also, the musical Working is based on the Studs Terkel book of the same name. (Disclaimer: haven't seen it, but it's reasonably popular and might offer an interesting comparison to the book itself.)

The 1930s (in America, particularly -- I'm guessing from your spelling that you don't live in the US) have a lot of interesting issues swirling around work, money, corporations, the labor movement, the Depression, all that. You might check out information on the WPA (Works Progress Administration), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and other New Deal governmental agencies that aimed to provide unemployed workers with jobs.

The labor movement has spawned so many protest songs. Check out some by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and People's Songs, Billy Bragg, etc.

You might also think about slavery and the stories or songs or other folklore embedded in that. Songs to time the work, or make the work go by faster, or bemoan the plight, or pass on information about escape.

Anything to do with family businesses of any kind (blue-collar, financial, restaurants, run by immigrants, whatever) would be really interesting.

Really, you could make a case for many nontraditional offerings. I might even say that the book/movie(s) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be a good choice. I was trying to think about a POSITIVE portrayal of work, for pete's sake, and I thought of C&tCF because it deals with someone who loves his life and job (indeed, they're pretty much the same thing) and wants to control his legacy. Also, it has Oompa-Loompas. But it's a neat, albeit wacky, example of someone who saw a system falling apart, closed up his shop and reopened it in a completely unorthodox manner that addressed his specific needs -- in style! I think just about any business owner could be inspired by that.
posted by Madamina at 2:17 PM on September 15, 2010

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan. Takes you into the daily routine of a Red Lobster restaurant (it's also a great story otherwise). The author did a lot of research:

"I went to a bunch of different Red Lobsters and other restaurants and kitchens. I lurked around, taking notes and pictures, grabbed some menus. I rooted out some blogs written by employees; but just talking with people who worked there and watching and listening to the front and back of the house in action, the way people treat each other, the small everyday dramas—that was the best."

(interview from here)
posted by Lucinda at 2:19 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oddly I can think of more good children's books about work than adult books.. I guess the idea still seems exotic to kids! The attention to work and vocation is one of the reasons I love Noel Streatfeild so much, Ballet Shoes, Circus Shoes, and Tennis Shoes, are all about young heroines learning to cope with the indignities and discipline of labour (granted, cool labour. but still.)

Also: Black Beauty.

Hoping I'm the first to put up 9 to 5.
posted by Erasmouse at 2:23 PM on September 15, 2010

Glengarry Glen Ross - film or play, both are fantastic.
posted by googly at 2:23 PM on September 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

William Styron absolutely rips apart working at a publisher (one I used to work at) in Sophie's Choice, although it isn't 'about' work, clearly.
James Thurber wrote a charming although dated story called 'The Catbird Seat', which you'll find in The Thurber Carnival anthology.
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:24 PM on September 15, 2010

Visioneers is excellent.
posted by shmegegge at 2:25 PM on September 15, 2010

Arrgh must preview better, so, seconding Thurber anyway...
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:25 PM on September 15, 2010

Several Jam songs fit the bill, particularly Man in the Corner Shop and Smithers-Jones.
posted by scody at 2:27 PM on September 15, 2010

In college, I took a course called The Literature of Work.

We read:

Fight Club
Glengarry Glen Ross
Nickle & Dimed
& a bunch of pieces from this anthology, titled The Art of Work
posted by nuclear_soup at 2:31 PM on September 15, 2010

Maybe I'm biased, because I'm from Pittsburgh and share an ethnic background with the characters, but: Out Of This Furnace.
posted by alynnk at 2:33 PM on September 15, 2010

DILBERT!! Cubicle life described to a "t" in comics.
posted by swmobill at 2:36 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Music: The Pete Seeger album you want is American Industrial Ballads.

Poetry: Philip Levine - What Work Is

Novels: Too many come to mind; I'm frozen by options. Maybe this blog post will be fruitful: "My Favorite Labor Novel." There's interesting work being done in Butcher's Crossing.

Movies: Again lots of options. Some of the labor scenes in Days of Heaven are extraordinarily lovely.
posted by .kobayashi. at 2:38 PM on September 15, 2010

Nonfiction: Gig; Americans Talk About Their Jobs, edited by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter.
posted by SuzB at 3:17 PM on September 15, 2010

A few thought-provoking works of non-fiction I can recommend:

The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood For Our Time by Matthew Fox
Why Work? Arguments for the Leisure Society ed. by Vernon Richards
Why Work Sucks and How To Fix It by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson
Selling the Work Ethic by Sharon Beder

I have an eclectic collection of obscure, fascinating and (mostly) out-of-print books on work and leisure, most of which are written from a radical, deep green, and/or spiritual perspective. Feel free to MeMail me for more recommendations.
posted by velvet winter at 3:18 PM on September 15, 2010

Well, Working seems obvious, and from a newer POV, Granta 109. (subscription req. for full archives, but lots of good stuff there for free too.)
posted by timsteil at 3:20 PM on September 15, 2010

Max Barry's Company.
posted by nicwolff at 3:29 PM on September 15, 2010

I'm a fan of McSweeney's Interviews with People Who Have Interesting or Unusual Jobs.
posted by sigmagalator at 4:01 PM on September 15, 2010

Nice Work by David Lodge
New Grub Street by George Gissing
Stet by Diana Athill
posted by HandfulOfDust at 4:06 PM on September 15, 2010

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
All the misery of manila folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.

-- Theodore Roethke
posted by Decani at 4:58 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

The first half of Don DeLillo's Americana (from which Then We Came To The End gets its title.

Il Posto, a great Italian movie from 1961.
posted by newmoistness at 5:08 PM on September 15, 2010

Everybody Wants to Work
posted by pompomtom at 5:52 PM on September 15, 2010

Response by poster: These are fantastic! Lots of exactly what I'm looking for and hadn't thought of myself. Keep them coming if you think of any others - I haven't marked "best answers" because they all are!
posted by Bergamot at 6:10 PM on September 15, 2010

The novels of Richard Price tend to go into a lot of detail about the working lives of the people in them, cops, drug dealers and fast-food workers in Clockers for instance, and a restaurant/bistro workers (and of course more cops and crims) in Lush Life.

An unfinished novel by David Foster Wallace all about the tedium of working in an IRS office is to be published next year, and there's an excerpt from it here. Not that he ever did such a job.

Anthony Bourdain writes compellingly and in detail about the work of kitchen workes and restaurateurs.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:48 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell
Guard of Honor - James Gould Cozzens
posted by Joe Beese at 7:02 PM on September 15, 2010

Johnny Paycheck's Take this job and shove it
posted by crazycanuck at 9:07 PM on September 15, 2010

A great working song is Merle Haggard's Workingman's Blues. The Grateful Dead paid homage with the album "Workingman's Dead", which is uneven, but the song "Easy Wind" kicks some ass. (start at 0:45) You might even call it gritty and tight.

Haggard's cover of Jimmie Rodgers' "Muleskinner Blues is another great one.
posted by msalt at 10:48 PM on September 15, 2010

A good obscure book is "How to Tell When You're Tired, written by a longtime longshoreman and migrant worker.
posted by msalt at 10:50 PM on September 15, 2010

Paul Schrader's 1978 film starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto: Blue Collar
posted by Mister Bijou at 1:58 AM on September 16, 2010

Wild Sex In The Working Class
posted by the latin mouse at 2:09 AM on September 16, 2010

The best book I've ever read that dealt chiefly with work is Primo Levi's The Monkey's Wrench.
posted by saladin at 4:22 AM on September 16, 2010

Being John Malkovich has a good deal of workplace focus (amongst other less concrete things...)
posted by haveanicesummer at 9:43 AM on September 16, 2010

This is a great Stan Rogers song. Listen to it if you get a chance (from the album Between the Breaks):

Well, I rise up every morning at a quarter to eight
Some woman who's my wife tells me not to be late
I kiss the kids goodbye, I can't remember their names
And week after week, it's always the same
And it's Ho, boys, can't you code it, and program it right
Nothing ever happens in the life of mine
I'm hauling up the data on the Xerox line
Then it's code in the data, give the keyboard a punch
Then cross-correlate and break for some lunch
Correlate, tabulate, process and screen
Program, printout, regress to the mean
Then it's home again, eat again, watch some TV
Make love to my woman at ten-fifty-three
I dream the same dream when I'm sleeping at night
I'm soaring over hills like an eagle in flight
Someday I'm gonna give up all the buttons and things
I'll punch that time clock till it can't ring
Burn up my necktie and set myself free
Cause no'one's gonna fold, bend or mutilate me.
posted by LauraJ at 3:18 PM on September 17, 2010

Hm, Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work? It won't change your life, but it was far better than I was expecting and it had some interesting stories (told with his trademark highfalutin style of course). Check your library.
posted by ersatz at 5:08 PM on September 18, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, these are great recommendations!
posted by Bergamot at 11:31 PM on September 26, 2010

« Older What's the best way to sell vintage stuff?   |   Shopping/eating suggestions for Seoul? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.