Working (Review)

Labels: Great Works

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Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do
Studs Terkel, 1974
694 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
October 2010

Working caused a major stir when published in 1974—everyone was talking about it. It even spawned a Broadway play. Thiry-five years later the book has attained iconic status for its bird's eye view into the world of the American worker.

Terkel had a simple but brilliant idea: let's go out and actually talk with real people to see how they feel about their jobs. Let's give voice to the "nobodies"—instead of the rich and famous "somebodies" we always hear from.

The result is a mesmerizing oral history—monologues of people talking, musing, contradicting themselves, and revealing the pleasures and (mostly) frustrations of their jobs. The people and their stories feel vibrantly alive—they nearly jump off the page.

What we get are unfiltered voices of factory workers, crane operators, farmers, waitresses, policemen, airline stewardesses (yes, that's what they were called then), a gravedigger, a doorman, and a dentist—133 people in all. They come from various levels and segments of the work force.

Through a diversity of jobs and voices, major themes surface repeatedly: the desire for fair treatment from bosses, recognition of their efforts, and a sense of meaning in what they do. Though not to get all doe-eyed—there are also those willing cut corners or slack off whenever possible.

This is a captivating, though long and unwieldly, book. There are so many stories it's hard to keep them straight. One approach for book clubs is for members to pick and choose their own essays and report back on what each found.

 

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