Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Tell Me More About Someone's Work
September 23, 2011 9:59 AM   Subscribe

More non-fiction please! As a strange antidote to having to read a lot of dry academic articles, I enjoy pleasurable non-fiction writing about jobs and work. Books I've liked in the past include May Roach (Stiff); Atul Gawande (Complications, Better); Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickeled and Dimed); and Tracy Kidder (House, Among Schoolchildren). I'd like recommendations for more non-fiction along those lines.

Although I love Studs Terkel, books like Working are not contemporary enough for me and have a bit more of a biographical slant to them versus a study of a job, its tasks, and common problems. I also appreciate a book that looks closely at one work context (as Gawande does with healthcare) or work related to a certain theme (like Roach using Stiff to explore different jobs related to handling the dead, or Kidder using House to explore the different jobs and interactions involved in designing and building a house).

Bartending, basketweaving, road paving, dairy farming...I don't much care about the KIND of work. But I do enjoy a well researched, well told story about types of work.

What say you, hive mind?
posted by jeanmari to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
The book "Braving Home" is not specifically about work, but ends up sort of being about it anyway. It's a book about people who choose to live in unusual/inhospitable places and what their lives are like. Discussions about work take up a lot of the book. I loved this book.

Also Narcocorrido was a great book about the work a specific subset of Mexican folk song writers do. Very interesting.

Them and The Men Who Stare at Goats were both really good, and touched on strange types of vocations and avocations.

Finally, American Nomads and God's Middle Finger aren't about work but are so much fun to read that I always mention them when talking about non-fiction.
posted by staggering termagant at 10:09 AM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you haven't had enough of healthcare after the Gawande books, I'd recommend Julie Salamon's Hospital.

Also, have you read Mary Roach's most recent book, Packing for Mars? That one really is about a very specialized workplace--NASA and other space programs. Fascinating stuff.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:14 AM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: David Simon's Homicide is a fantastic look at Baltimore homicide detectives.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:15 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you liked Stiff you might like Mop Men, which follows a bunch of guys who clean up crime scenes.

I'll second the recommendation for the other Mary Roach books.
posted by bondcliff at 10:16 AM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: I really liked Big Dead Place, penned by a member of the kitchen in Antarctica's McMurdo Station.
posted by rw at 10:25 AM on September 23, 2011

Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, edited by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe, and Sabin Streeter.
posted by plokent at 10:30 AM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: I'll second "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" and suggest Liar's Poker.
posted by carsonb at 10:35 AM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: Nthing Mary Roach's Packing for Mars, which was fun, light nonfiction, with lots of penis jokes.
posted by BrashTech at 10:48 AM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: I'm reading In The Plex right now, which is the story of Google, and a lot of it is very specifically about working at Google. It's fascinating, and highly entertaining.
posted by COD at 10:50 AM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
posted by mattbucher at 10:56 AM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: If you want to learn about our criminal justice system through the people with jobs in the system, here's a series:

Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District. Sociologist Peter Moskos got a job as a Baltimore cop, then wrote a book about it.

Blue Blood. Edward Conlon spent a year as a NYC cop, then wrote a book about it.

Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse Writer Steve Bogira spent a year in a Chicago courtroom (and researched the backstories of the people who came through it, focusing on the judge), then wrote a book about it.

Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing. Writer Ted Conover couldn't get permission to report from Sing Sing, so he got a job as a guard there, then wrote a book about it.

In the same vein as Atul Gawande is Jerome Groopman, the other Harvard Med School doctor/New Yorker writer. I liked How Doctors Think; he's written several other books.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:01 AM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: A book that I always come back to is My Own Country, by Abraham Verghese. It's somewhat biographical, in that he makes some parallels between his experience as a foreign doctor in rural America to the outsider status of his HIV/AIDS patients. Still, it has a great sense of place and description of the ways in which the clinicians and patients worked together to navigate treatment of this new disease.

If you like culinary stuff, Bill Buford's Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany is an absolute classic. The story is half biography of Mario Batali and half a description of Buford's time as the aforementioned kitchen slave in Batali's restaurants. But even the biographical part is so detailed that it gives you a great appreciation for the way chefs think and work.

More importantly, the story gives you a great feeling for a lot of the other kitchen workers and how they move around in the industry: within a particular restaurant, going from place to place, all that. The restaurant world couldn't get by without this running current of mostly Central American folks.
posted by Madamina at 11:12 AM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another good one about law enforcement: The Restless Sleep by Stacy Horn (about cold-case police work in New York).

Since someone else recommended Blood, Bones and Butter, how could I forget Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential for the restaurant business (or at least the New York restaurant business).

I also really liked Running the Books, Avi Steinberg's memoir about working as a prison librarian. There's a fair amount of personal journey in there (especially regarding Orthodox Judaism), so it's not as reportorial as the others I've mentioned, but the job does take front and center, I think.

Ditto House of Cards, by David Ellis Dickerson. Again, personal exploration (and again, about escaping a claustrophobic religious background) but the workplace (Hallmark Cards) is front and center, and that stuff is both fascinating and a hoot.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:14 AM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: Here are a few goodies:

Oil on the Brain, by Lisa Margonelli

The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu

Factory Girls, by Leslie T. Chang
posted by Corvid at 11:41 AM on September 23, 2011

This one might be a stretch and a bit more political than what you're looking for but I'm currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and it could fit the bill. It's a great read on pretty much every aspect of how Hitler obtained, did, abused, and failed at his job.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:34 PM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: John McPhee. La Place de la Concorde Suisse is where I learned some pretty fascinating stuff about Switzerland via the Swiss Army (yep, they can blow all the bridges and mountain passes to cut themselves off in an emergency). That book led me to Looking for A Ship and what it's like to work in the merchant marine. Above all, an excellent writer. Thank you for reminding me to seek out some more.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 12:43 PM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Animal Hospital by Stephen Sawicki is an excellent look behind the scenes of a large, state of the art animal hospital (specifically Angell Memorial in Boston, in this case). It's probably a bit out of date now, but I suspect the general observations about the relationship between specialty vets, their patients and clients hold true.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:49 PM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: I was going to recommend John McPhee, but TWinbrook8 beat me to it. On geology and geologists, Annals of the Former World is amazing. Why would someone move to Alaska? Read Coming into the Country. Much of McPhee's oeuvre involves talking about people's jobs, because it's his way of getting into what fascinates and engages them.

On a rather different note, Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi reveals lots, some of it even true, about the life of a riverboat pilot in the 19th century.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:35 PM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: If you fancy a look at the British equivalent of Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, there are two books by Polly Toynbee, written 30 years apart: A Working Life (1973) and Hard Work (2003). Here's the introduction to Hard Work, from The Guardian. It doesn't look as if they were published in the US, and the older one might be hard to find, but you can get Hard Work through Amazon.

You're probably already aware of this one, and it's really more about not working, but just in case: Barbara Ehrenreich also wrote a sort of sequel to Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, in which she set out to take a similar approach to white-collar employment, but found that things didn't quite go according to plan.

For an insight into a very different working culture, there's The Blue-Eyed Salaryman, in which an Irishman describes his life as a salaryman at Mitsubishi in Japan.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:56 PM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: Newjack by Ted Conover chronicles the year the author spent working as a rookie guard, or "newjack," at Sing-Sing Prison. it's fascinating.

Hot Lights, Cold Steel by orthopedic surgeon Michael Collins is a fascinating month-by-month account of his four years as a surgical resident at the Mayo Clinic.

Cutting Remarks by Sidney Schwab covers 7 years of general surgery internship and residency at UCSF. Schwab is a great writer and storyteller: in addition to his book, he wrote what one the best medical blogs ever (surgeonsblog.blogspot.com)

Dead Men do Tell Tales by forensic anthropologist William Maples chronicles his pioneering work in the recovery and identification of skeletal remains, and revisits some of his most high-profile cases. These include authenticating the bones of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, elucidating the mysterious causes of death of Czar Nicholas II and eight other Romanov family members, changing long-accepted opinion about the cause of John Merrick's ("'The Elephant Man'") appearance, and exhuming the remains of US President Zachary Taylor in an effort to discover the true cause of his death

A Primate's Memoir by Stanford University neuroscientist/primatologist Robert Sapolsky is an account of his twenty-one-year study of a troop of baboons in Kenya. Sapolsky does a great job of interweaving serious science with wry you-are-there commentary about the human and animal culture of the Serengeti.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 3:05 PM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Toyko Vice get a little lurid and less career-oriented in the scond half, but the first few sections are a really interesting, straight-forward portrayal of working as a reporter in Toyko There's some fish out of water elements, but it's mostly about the nuts and bolts of the job, not just being a Westerner in Japan.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 3:19 PM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: Always fun: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
posted by Artw at 5:17 PM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Since you mention Tracy Kidder, have you read this? Practically ancient history now, but facinating.
posted by Artw at 5:24 PM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: Wow, I can't believe we got this far without anyone mentioning Michael Ruhlman. He describes himself as having "always been fascinated by people who are intensely engaged in their work--teachers, chefs, boat builders, primarily craftsmen, people who work with their hands". He's best known for his "trilogy" of books on chefs and professional cooking and food:

The Making of A Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America
The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Towards Perfection
The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity

But my favourite work of his is Walk on Water: Inside an Elite Pediatric Surgical Unit, the story of pediatric heart surgeon Roger Mee and his astonishing work at the Cleveland Clinic.
posted by kanuck at 6:43 PM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: I'm surprised no one has mentioned Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft.
posted by Forktine at 11:25 PM on September 23, 2011

Best answer: On Subbing: The First Four Years by Dave Roach is a chronicle of four years he spent being a substitute teacher's aide for mentally and physically disabled children. It's some truly heart-breaking, yet inspirational stuff.
posted by HermanoBluth at 12:41 AM on September 24, 2011

Best answer: Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am?, about being a psychotherapist. Welcome to My Country, by a psychologist. Sick Notes, by a GP. And an older series of books, but with great detail and humour - Edward Blishen's books about teaching (starting with Roaring Boys).
posted by paduasoy at 1:45 AM on September 24, 2011

Best answer: Population: 485 is Michael Perry's book about being a volunteer fireman/ambulance driver in his childhood hometown of New Auburn, Wisconsin. I can't recommend it enough.
posted by themanwho at 3:30 AM on September 24, 2011

Best answer: The Blue Cotton Gown: a midwife's memoir is quite good. It's about a year in the life of a rural midwife. It talks about her patients (who, I should warn you, are struggling) but also about the practice and its financial concerns and the pressures of conducting medicine in today's version of healthcare.

Very interesting, and it gave me one of the best insights into our healthcare system and its dysfunctions simply through her descriptions of her work.
posted by librarylis at 7:55 AM on September 24, 2011

Best answer: I'm currently reading and enjoying The Gardner Heist, about art theft at the Gardner Museum in Boston. Lots of interesting stuff about art detectives and the like.
posted by jabes at 9:05 AM on September 24, 2011

Best answer: This thread about the SR-71 mentions a couple of candidates that I've always meant to check into:
Sled Driver is out of print and ridiculously priced
SR-71 Revealed is in print and evidently quite good
Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir about running Lockheed's Advanced Development Project
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:03 AM on September 25, 2011

Best answer: The Pleasures and Sorrrows of Work by Alain de Botton
posted by lalochezia at 4:59 AM on September 27, 2011

Best answer: Waiter Rant.
posted by JDC8 at 9:42 AM on September 28, 2011

« Older Drink the best, mess with the rest   |   Rip Blu-Ray straight to uncompressed .avi at 1080p... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.