At long last, I have finally finished “Working” by Studs Terkel. And it’s an incredible book. There’s no reason on Earth it should have taken me four months to read it.
A description of “Working” might make it sound rather tedious. Published in 1974, the book is a collection of interviews in which people talk about their jobs — what they do, how they feel about it and their attitudes toward work and life in general. What’s amazing is how interesting the interviews are — Terkel’s subjects provide vivid accounts of their work, as well as wise insights drawn from years of toil, even when the jobs being discussed seem fairly mundane: waitress, accountant, hospital aide, bus driver. I was also impressed with how many of Terkel’s subjects are gifted storytellers — how eloquently they speak of their hopes, dreams, fears and joys. Each interview contains poetry, and truth.
“Working” gives lie to one of the big myths of our time: that blue-collar work is somehow less important, less worthy of respect, than white collar work. Terkel speaks with auto workers, truck drivers, welders, heavy equipment operators and miners, who all give the impression that they’re working very hard, at jobs that are physically demanding and require a certain amount of know-how to do well. We hear from a service station owners who put in 12-hour days, a cab driver who fears for his safety and a janitor who takes pride in his work, saying, “You can call me a janitor. There’s nothing wrong with a janitor.”
A gravedigger has similar pride. “Not anybody can be a gravedigger,” he says. “You can dig a hole any way they come. A gravedigger, you have to make a neat job. I had a fella once, he wanted to see a grave. He was a fella that digged sewers. He was impressed when he seen me diggin’ this grave — how square and how perfect it was. A human body is goin’ into this grave. That’s why you need skill when you’re gonna dig a grave.”
“Working” devotes considerable time to blue collar workers, and my sense is that Terkel feels the most affection and sympathy for people who struggle to get by. But the book also explores the more comfortable worlds of middle and upper-middle class professionals, as well as athletes, actors and writers. There are interviews with a yacht salesman, a model and a CEO. They work hard, too, and speak of their jobs with both pride and weariness. They are also more likely to really enjoy their work, which tends to be more creative and individualistic. Professional hockey player Eric Nesterenko says, “The pro game is a kind of a stage. People can see who we are. Our personalities come through in our bodies. It’s exciting. I can remember games with twenty thousand people and the place going crazy with sound and action and color. The enormous energy the crowd produces all coming in on the ice, all focusing on you. It’s pretty hard to resist that.”
If there’s a common thread to the array of jobs in “Working,” it’s the angst that typically accompanies work, as well as the mixed feelings. People speak of a failed search for meaning in their jobs, but also of the satisfaction that hard work and a job done well can provide.
There are a few people seem to love their jobs without reservation, such as the CEO and a woman who sells homemade bread and teaches others how to bake. But people who speak of their work with such affection are few and far between, and as the book progresses, some common complaints emerge. The most common: People feel they are working too much, for employers who simply do not care about them, in jobs that aren’t meaningful. “Jobs are not big enough for people,” complains Nora Watson, an editor. “It’s just not the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.”
“Working” is an older book and parts of it feel dated. The job opportunities available for women have certainly expanded, while new industries, such as technology, have exploded. Fascinating as the book is, it would be great if someone would update it.
Still, “Working” suggests that the world hasn’t changed as much as we sometimes think. The complaints and reflection people have about their jobs and the direction of the country are similar to those I hear from friends today, which leads me to conclude that work is one of those things that always has, and always will inspire a certain amount of angst.
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