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What Is the Greatest Book on Working Ever Written?

Studs Terkel / Photo by James Warden

What is the greatest book on working ever written? Easy. Studs Terkel's Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do. The Chicago oral historian and radio host died in 2008 while I was researching my own book, How to Find Fulfilling Work, and I dedicated it to his memory. Every day a copy of his 1974 classic sat on my desk while I was writing, providing inspiration, solace, and a reminder of the universal themes that shape the everyday experience of working life.

Terkel's book offers his own special brand of oral history — recordings with workers from all walks of life talking about their memories and thoughts related to their jobs, each edited down to around five pages of vibrant text, with people speaking in their own voices. Between the covers you will discover the lives of steel workers and janitors, receptionists and cab drivers, professors, jockeys, stockbrokers, and dentists.

The opening lines of the introduction tell us that Working is much more about suffering than joy, much more about making ends meet than the pursuit of "ideal careers":

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

But somehow in its pages I detect glimmers of hope that work can be more than just the salary, that it can offer meaning alongside humiliation. The final words belong to a New York City fireman:

I worked in a bank. You know, it's just paper. It's not real. Nine to five and it's shit. You're lookin' at numbers. But I can look back and say, 'I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.' It shows something I did on this earth.

Terkel's greatest gift was an insatiable and natural curiosity about strangers. According to one of his longtime radio colleagues:

What drives him on still, and so remarkably at his age, is his genuine curiosity about other people, no matter who or what they are. And it's matched somehow with his almost total lack of interest in himself....His curiosity is endless, and it's an honest curiosity into who people are, it's never motivated by jealousy or envy.

This curiosity about strangers was what made him such an extraordinarily empathic human being. It enabled him to step into their skin for a while and walk around in it. Terkel was hungry to understand other people, and to learn from them. "I think everyone has a story to tell," he said, "what your childhood was like, what your own memories are like, your own dreams...everyone is an expert on their own experience."

Terkel always wanted his readers and listeners to empathize with "the anonymous millions who make the world go round." He tried to give voice to the voiceless, those who are ignored by the history books — the shoe-shine boys, the dockers, the elderly trapped in care homes, the immigrants trying to make a new life — and all of this comes through in his book Working. He was perpetually intrigued by the question, "What is it like to be a certain person — ordinary so-called — living at a certain moment in history, in a certain circumstance?"

Terkel was fond of quoting the Bertolt Brecht poem, "A Worker Reads History," which reminded him that history has been made not by kings but by everyday people — by the workers of the world who appear in his extraordinary book:

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

More from Roman Krznaric:

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Roman Krznaric is an Australian cultural thinker and cofounder of The School of Life in London. This post is based on his new book, How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life.

Books mentioned in this post

Roman Krznaric is the author of How to Find Fulfilling Work (School of Life)

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